Woe, Christmas Tree
Woe, Christmas Tree Area Christmas tree farms persevere despite tough donditions and diminishing returns By Lilly Rockwell
Farmer Bill Maphis spends his days worrying about trees. Specifically, whether the nine acres of Christmas trees on his Chipley farm are growing too much fungus, if they need a trim, if the grass beneath them is nipping at their leaves — or even if their signature dark green leaves are beginning to fade, suggesting the need for a light spray of green tint.
For Maphis, Christmas isn’t all about family and friends.
It’s a time for revenue generation.
While other Northwest Florida farmers are waiting out winter, the Maphis family is preparing for a crush of hundreds of eager customers, ready to stampede through their land just off Interstate 10 in Chipley to choose and cut their own Christmas tree.
One of only a handful of Florida farmers growing Christmas trees, Maphis spends his days nurturing 1,300 trees that will someday grow to between 6 and 7 feet and be chopped down. (Although some families are requesting trees as tall as 16 feet now.)
A former state park manager, Maphis said developing the farm 15 years ago was an easy decision.
"I like Christmas," he said. "At Christmas time, people are friendlier."
Maphis sells about 250 trees a year, opening on Thanksgiving Day and closing on Christmas Eve. He plants a new crop each January. It takes four to five years for Southern-grown trees to reach their
ideal height, with constant care and maintenance required.
Maphis and his wife, Brenda, have transformed their land into a holiday haven, with orderly rows of green Christmas trees outside and a Santa shop inside that sells wreaths and ornaments, offers refreshments and, once a year, provides visitors with the opportunity to whisper a wish list into Santa’s ear.
Farm owners say it’s a tough business, filled with days of mowing grass; fighting fire ants, other insects and deer; monitoring fungus; pruning trees; and planting new ones. Not to mention the five weeks of heavy lifting in November and December.
The paycheck is slim: Most Florida growers say they don’t earn enough to make a living from it. One farmer said his profit is a mere $10,000 a year. That’s why many Christmas tree growers are semi-retired or dabble in other types of farming.
Mark Powell, owner of Powell Farm and Vineyard in Sneads, said he continues his family’s tradition of selling Christmas trees out of a sense of duty. His father started the business in 1981, when Christmas tree farming was a trendy agricultural foray.
"There is no real money in it. I do it because I’m supposed to," Powell said. "It’s like the policeman or the fireman — somebody’s got to do it." Demand has dwindled to 250 to 300 trees a year, down from its heyday in the 1990s when he sold 800.
Christmas trees sell from $5 to $6 a foot, with some farmers charging a flat fee.
Despite all these drawbacks, Christmas tree growers say it’s the best business to be in.
"There’s no pressure," said Vincent Grund, a registered forester and the owner of Bouvier Farms, which sells Christmas trees on five acres located 13 miles northwest of Crestview. "I can work two hours today and two hours tomorrow, and nobody is yelling at me."
Grund has 7,000 trees on his farm but only sells between 400 and 500 each year. He got into the business in the mid-1990s while working as a forestry consultant. He is now retired after a recent bout with cancer but hopes to continue running the farm.
"There are going to be periods that are absolutely labor-intensive," Grund said. "But the financial rewards are there."
The Southern Christmas Tree
Florida is better known for its palm trees than Christmas trees, and with good reason.
Out of the 50 states, Florida ranks in the bottom fifth of Christmas tree harvesters, with states such as Oregon, North Carolina and Michigan ranking highest.
Blame the state’s warm weather and humidity. Farmers say Christmas trees are only grown north of Interstate Four, which starts in Tampa and slices through Orlando before ending at Daytona Beach.
Florida trees are of the Southern variety, which includes Leyland cypress, Virginia pine and red cedar. Southern trees are more difficult to ship long distances because they are more delicate than the hardier Northern-grown Christmas trees, such as the popular Fraser fir.
That’s why Christmas tree farms in Florida sell directly to the consumer rather than sell trees to a wholesale distributor that would ship them to lots.
Because Florida Christmas tree farms can only grow certain species, farmers say they often compete against Northern trees shipped in from states like North Carolina.
In addition, many Florida residents are originally from Northern states and are accustomed to trees such as the Fraser fir or Scotch pine, said Jack Ewing, the treasurer of the Florida Christmas Tree Association.
That’s why many Florida Christmas tree farms have turned to transforming the choose-and-cut experience into a winter wonderland, selling trinkets and ornaments.
"We don’t sell Christmas trees," Grund said. "We sell a family experience."
Christmas tree farmers are often the last ones to pick their own trees, settling for the leftovers, with gaping bald spots, a crooked trunk or dropping needles.
"We get a little burned out from Christmas," Powell admitted.
His family picks one of the damaged or unsightly trees that would be difficult to sell.
The Maphis family scrambles to put up a tree on Christmas Eve each year. They are too busy selling trees to other families to bother selecting one for themselves.
And although Grund has helped hundreds of families pick out trees, he won’t put one up himself. It’s for families, he explains simply, and the lone farmer doesn’t have one.
A Sputtering Business
Christmas trees are at the hub of an increasingly commercial holiday.
"In the old days, people just went out into the forest and got a sand pine or a red cedar tree," Ewing said. Beginning in the 1970s, Florida farmers say the state experienced a boom in Christmas tree farms. It was a popular industry at the time, Powell said, and many farmers thought they could make easy money by planting trees.
But the popularity of choose-and-cut farms in Florida has dwindled. There are many culprits, including competition from artificial trees, the popularity of Northern-grown trees, the proliferation of Christmas tree lots and the recent economic recession.
Family farms are typically passed on to younger generations, who may not be interested in carrying on the tradition. At one time, the Florida Christmas Tree Association had more than 200 members, Ewing said. That membership has dropped to fewer than 30 today.
The economy and lack of demand has hit some Christmas tree farms hard.
"Things are tight," Powell said. "Each year, everything seems to get a little bit worse."
Powell jokes about getting out of the business but says he isn’t likely to because he would be disappointing generations of families that annually travel to his farm for a tree.
"It’s a family values thing. Taking the time to pick out a Christmas tree and spend time with the family, well you just can’t do that at Wal-Mart," Powell said.
"It’s just not the same."
Deck the Halls
Powell Tree Farm and Vineyard
7593 Old Spanish Trail, Sneads
Opens after Thanksgiving Day and closes on Christmas Day. Hours: Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (CST) and Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m.
1585 Vinson Ray Road, Baker
Open Saturday after Thanksgiving until Christmas Eve. Hours: Weekends from 9 a.m. until dark and weekdays from noon until dark.
Santa Rosa County
Whispering Pines Christmas Tree Farm
1603 Penton Road, Milton
Opens after Thanksgiving Day.
Hours: Open daily from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. through Dec. 22.
Maphis Tree Farm
814 Rattlebox Road, Chipley
Opens Thanksgiving Day at 1 p.m. and closes on Christmas Day.
Hours: Open Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m.