During a typical Christmas season at Wahmhoff Farms Nursery, a 70-year-old Christmas tree farm near Kalamazoo, more than 4,000 families come to select the perfect tree. They wander 150 acres of farmland packed with more than 10 varieties of fir, pine, and spruce trees, some standing as tall as 16 feet. Once they’ve chosen the ideal evergreen, they saw the thick trunk until the tree comes crashing down. After the hard work is finished, children pile into horse-drawn wagons for a ride through the farm and sit on Santa’s lap to relay their Christmas wishes.
But this year looks a little different at Wahmhoff’s choose-and-cut farm. Families will be staggered 6 feet apart throughout the nursery. Santa, who is particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 as an older gentleman, will now be shielded behind the walls of a makeshift Santa home. He’ll pose for pictures with children and chat with them, but only through the window of the shelter. Hand sanitizing stations will be scattered throughout the fields and indoor areas. Cashiers will serve customers from behind plexiglass shields.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly made things more challenging, but as farmers, we’re up to the challenge,” says Dan Wahmhoff, the farm’s president and a third-generation Christmas tree grower.
Michigan is the third-largest Christmas tree producer in the United States, selling about 2 million trees each year, according to Amy Start, executive director of the Michigan Christmas Tree Association. The industry has faced well-publicized challenges in recent years, tracing their roots back to the 2008 recession, when cash-strapped growers nationwide planted fewer trees for several years after the economy tanked. That led to a tightening supply of mature trees over the past few years, since the trees take up to a decade to reach market size. Now, like many other industries, the Christmas tree business faces uncertainty about how the pandemic will affect sales. But this year, many farmers and industry experts believe demand could be higher than ever come December, as families look for ways to escape quarantine and safely get outdoors together.
Wahmhoff says Christmas tree farmers face a recurring challenge when having to look to the current market to determine how many trees to plant for a decade later. His own supply is down this year compared to the past couple of years.
“When you have to plant 10 years in advance, you don’t always hit things on the mark,” he says.
But Tim O’Connor, the executive director of the National Christmas Tree Association, believes the media has misrepresented the industry’s recent struggles. He says there’s a significant difference between a tight supply and a genuine shortage.
“I think what we’ve seen in the last seven, eight months with COVID is a pretty clear example of what a shortage looks like — you can’t get something,” O’Connor says. “The shelves have been wiped out. That’s just not what happened with the Christmas trees.”
Even with fewer trees available in recent years, O’Connor says he’s not aware of any communities that ran out of trees, and sales have remained relatively stable, with an average of 28 million sold nationally each year over the past decade. The tightening of the market is a natural part of agricultural production cycles for any crop and stands to benefit farmers, he says. With tighter supply and continued demand, buyers compete for a more limited product and drive prices up. The median price of a real Christmas tree was $76 in 2019, more than double the 2008 price of $36, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.
Chris Maciborski, a co-owner of Dutchman Tree Farms near Cadillac, the largest Christmas tree farm in Michigan, says the industry’s tighter supply of trees has actually helped businesses recover from the 2008 recession.
“Any time that you can sell all the inventory that you have is much better for a farm than struggling to sell excess inventory,” says Maciborski, whose farm shipped more than 700,000 trees to grocery store chains, garden centers, and corner tree lots across the state in 2019.
While this year may turn out just fine for the industry, risks are on the horizon.
Because of global warming, weed species could become more of a nuisance in the future, according to Debalina Saha, an assistant professor of ornamentals and Christmas tree weed management in the Department of Horticulture at Michigan State University. Saha says recent studies show that over the past 20 to 25 years, climate change has spurred the growth of several common weed species that compete with Christmas trees, including field bindweed and large crabgrass. As weeds continue to adapt to a changing climate, they could become more resistant to existing herbicides, Saha says.
For now, though, growers are optimistic. Start, of the Michigan Christmas Tree Association, says it helps that Christmas trees are inherently socially distant.
“Our trees are 6 feet apart,” she says. “That’s how they grow.”