Considerations for Starting a Choose and Cut Christmas Tree Farm in the North Carolina Piedmont and Coastal Plain
Growing Christmas trees in the Piedmont and Coastal Plain of North Carolina is neither new nor “novel.” Although, growers in the “east” have been growing and selling Christmas trees for several decades, there are currently probably less than 100 growers with almost all growers being part-time. However, it remains a viable and profitable alternative for small acreage and those willing to invest a modest amount of cash but plenty of labor. Here are a few things you should consider when deciding whether this business is for you and in getting started.
North Carolina is known for Christmas trees. Christmas tree production and sales is over a $100 million industry in North Carolina. Probably well in excess of 95% of these trees are Fraser fir grown in the mountains – mostly Ashe, Allegheny, Avery, Watauga, and Jackson Counties. Fraser fir is native only to several high-elevation areas in North Carolina and southwestern Virginia. However, although not native to lower slopes (such as 2,500 feet), it can still be successfully grown at those elevations. Fraser fir has excellent needle retention and will hold up well when shipped, thus it is widely wholesaled across the U.S. and has been successfully branded “North Carolina Fraser Fir – The Perfect Christmas Tree.” However, it will not survive when planted in the Coastal Plain and Piedmont. Christmas trees which can currently be successfully grown in the Piedmont and Coastal Plain are not suitable for wholesaling and shipping, thus, Christmas tree production in the “east” is almost exclusively done as choose and cut where customers come to the farm, choose a tree as a family experience, and take it home. Most of these eastern tree types retain foliage well when soon placed in water in the living room: however, unlike Fraser fir, they cannot be cut, baled, and stored several weeks before wholesale shipment to retail lots. A few eastern growers have had “in-town” retail lots with their trees on display, but they are careful to display them in watered stands at the retail lot soon after cutting.
Eastern Christmas tree production is almost exclusively part-time. Because eastern Christmas tree types are not suitable for larger-scale wholesale shipment, the number of trees needed for sale is limited to the number of local customers who will drive to the farm. Accordingly, most farms have from two to five or six acres of trees with a few farms being somewhat larger.
Most eastern growers grow several species. Up until recently, most grew red cedar, Virginia pine, and white pine. In recent years, many growers have started growing several clones of Leyland cypress and even more recently, some growers are trying some varieties of Arizona cypress know as Blue Ice and Carolina Sapphire. Also, now being added to the tree type list for the east is Green Giant. The Piedmont/Coastal Plain North Carolina trees mostly grown and currently shown on the national site include Arizona cypress, Eastern Red Cedar, Eastern White Pine, Virginia Pine, and Leyland cypress. A few growers grow Scots pine and Norway spruce.
It would be time well spent to talk with choose ’n cut growers about the mix of tree types they grow and sell. In most cases, red cedar will make a small percent of trees grown. However, most growers dependably have a small number of customers who want cedar because they grew up with them as their family Christmas tree. Most growers sell more Leylands than Arizona cypress. Ultimately, the mix of species grown reflect local customer preference and grower preference, but all growers grow multiple species.
Almost all “eastern” growers additionally sell some pre-cut displayed Fraser fir from the mountain growers. Some consumers want the choose ’n cut farm experience for their family, but they prefer fir trees. Fraser fir can be purchased wholesale from North Carolina mountain growers. Some eastern growers sell as many pre-cut and shipped Fraser fir at their farms as on-the-stump trees they grow themselves.
Christmas tree production is very labor intensive. Activities include planting, mowing or weed control, insect control, disease control, scouting for insects and disease, shearing (or shaping), and marketing. Several species need pre-sales-season coloring with dyes. Virginia pine is considered to be especially difficult to shape, however the Christmas Tree Genetics Program here at NC State University will soon make available improved Virginia pine seedlings through the NC Division of Forest Resources. White pine and Virginia pine and occasionally red cedar are available as bare-root seedlings through the NC Division of Forest Resources. Other species are available from some eastern growers who also sell seedlings or through nurseries. Bare-root seedlings must be planted during the winter. Recommended spacings for Christmas trees are 5 feet by 5 feet for optimum land utilization. However, these close spacings prohibit mowing between trees by tractor and many growers use wider spacing between rows for access. Shearing and shaping also becomes difficult the last couple of years before harvest with a close spacing because the trees have become large with little space between trees. Many growers have found 6 feet by 6 feet between trees within rows and 8 feet between rows. Having an occasional wider space between rows such as 10 or 12 feet provides for tractor access.
Sizes sold. It takes from three to five years to grow a marketable 6 to7 foot tree for eastern species. Although 6-7 foot trees are the most common height sold, there is a market for taller trees for vaulted or cathedral ceilings. There is also a developing market for short “table-top” trees for people with limited room and/or time for decorating a tree. Many growers also sell dug B & B (balled and burlap) live trees for customers who want to plant their Christmas trees after the holidays.
Many eastern growers incorporate elements of agritourism into their business. Most eastern growers add value to their customers’ experience and profit to their business by incorporating elements of agritourism to their choose ’n cut tree sales. Examples include:
- Providing hay rides during the sales season
- Having crafts, baked goods, hot cider, etc. for sale
- Offering pre-season farm tours to local school groups as free advertising
- Having Santa present on the busiest days (week-ends, day after Thanksgiving)
- Selling pumpkins, Indian corn, etc. or creating a corn maize during the fall
- Offering petting zoos
- Working with local bed and breakfast inns or hotels for packages where customers come to town and stay, then get a tree before going home
Better to start small? Most growers operationally plant 1,000 to 1,100 trees per acre depending on the spacing chosen, non-plantable areas, and access lanes. Many small-acreage land owners only have a few acres to devote to tree production. Goals for choose ’n cut Christmas tree production should include:
- Producing a quality product
- Providing a quality experience for your customers
- Achieving self-satisfaction
- Maximizing profit from your farm within land and time constraints
- Developing a loyal customer base
- Being able to provide the product every year to your established customer base
Deciding how many trees to plant initially means recognizing that ultimately you will be harvesting only 1/5th or 1/6th of your trees annually (5 to 6 years to grow most tree types to market size) and that your first several years of sales will be smaller as you establish your customer base. A good rule of thumb is to start with about 20 percent of your land which will allow for some mortality without producing too many trees for sale your first year or two of sales. You should not expect customers to easily discover you the first year that your trees are marketable, so be conservative in the number of trees you plant the first year.
Prepared by Dennis Hazel, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Extension Forestry-General