Vermont Christmas tree growers scramble to meet high demand

On a recent weekday at Whites Christmas Tree Farm in Essex, longtime employee Mark Tourville was easy to spot among the trees in his neon yellow raincoat and chunky work boots. Tourville took a 9-foot Frasier fir from a customer and loaded it into the tree shaker, a machine that shakes off snow, dead needles, and other forest remnants.

Audio for this story will be posted.

“You will find little creatures there, and that’s why we like to shake them,” he explained.

Tourville used another machine to wrap the tree in red plastic mesh, then loaded it onto the customer’s SUV.

It was only a few days after Thanksgiving – the typical start of the Christmas tree season – but the Whites were already short of trees. Owner Bob White said there’s a good chance they’ll be sold out after the first weekend in December.

So what is causing this shortage? Did the Grinch steal thousands of Vermont trees?

Not enough. Last year, demand for trees increased as more people stayed at home during the pandemic. Many farmers have decided to cut and sell more medium-sized trees than usual to meet this demand. Overharvesting has resulted in a decrease in the number of trees in the fields this year.

To make up the difference, many farmers have tried purchasing pre-cut trees from wholesalers to offer customers who want a certain size tree. It was Bob White’s plan.

“I would have loved to buy a few thousand,” he said. “I bought zero.”

By the time he started calling the wholesalers, they were all sold.

Mikaela Lefrak

A stump from a recently harvested tree at Whites Christmas Tree Farm in Essex.

“Pre-cut is crazy right now,” said Jane Murray of Murray Hill Farm in Waterbury Center, one of Vermont’s roughly 70 forest farms. Her family doesn’t sell pre-cut trees, but that hasn’t stopped other farmers calling her, begging her to sell them trees. This has never happened before, she said.

Murray is originally from Texas. She started texting friends back home asking how much they pay for their Christmas trees. The numbers shocked her.

“I have a friend in Texas, they just bought theirs,” she said. “The same one we would sell $ 45, they just spent $ 180 on it.”

Christmas tree shortage is a national problem. Outsiders are willing to pay a premium this year for Vermont trees. Murray said a farmer near Barre told him his wholesaler sold his entire crop of pre-cut trees to a buyer in New York City, leaving the farmer in Barre dry.

“It was really sad to hear that because in this industry, especially in Vermont, a lot of people are doing it for the local family aspect of it all,” she said. “It kind of takes the Christmas spirit away from you.”

The pandemic is not the only factor to blame for the shortage: there is also climate change and extreme weather conditions. Over the past decade, flooding has killed many young trees across the state.

More from RVP: Reporter debriefing: New Vermont climate assessment reveals state is warming faster than previously thought. What does it mean?

This year’s hot and humid autumn has also caused problems for wholesalers in the Northeast Kingdom. It was too muddy for many of them to drive across the fields with their trailers and equipment to harvest trees in November, resulting in delays in fulfilling orders.

Then, on top of everything, farmers face labor shortage just like everyone else. Jane Murray even hired a regular babysitter so she could spend more hours on the farm. Many of these additional costs are passed on to the customer.

In total, prices for Christmas trees have increased by around 30% this year across the country.

“It kind of takes the Christmas spirit away from you.”

– Jane Murray, Murray Hill Farm

This year has felt so out of the ordinary that it even drove a farmer out of town altogether. Mike Isham of Isham’s Family Farm in Williston knew that early in the season he would struggle to keep up with demand. They oversold a bunch of their mid-sized trees last year, couldn’t find any reasonably priced pre-cut trees to buy and, to top it off, their crop was hit hard by the invasive caterpillars last spring. .

This perfect storm led Isham and his wife to get into their campervan and drive to Arizona.

“It’s amazing here. The sun is shining all the time,” Isham said from the road. “We never got to take time off, so we call it our honeymoon.” He said they would be back in time for the sugaring season.

For Vermonters who are still struggling to find a tree, there are other options: on the one hand, there are fake trees, but these are also hard to find due to global supply chain issues.

Or, you can always grab your ax and head to Green Mountain National Forest. If you buy a permit for $ 5, the Christmas tree of your choice is yours.

Do you have questions, comments or advice? Send us a message or tweet us @vermontedition.

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