• Surviving tree farmers work to meet customer preferences

    By Natasha Brewer, Vera Tan and Deme Walls

    For many mid-Missourians, finding that perfect Christmas tree is a big part of the holiday season. But the perfect tree is different for each person, and mid-Missouri Christmas tree farmers are doing what they can to provide that perfect tree for as many people as they can.

    According to census data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of Christmas tree farms in Missouri decreased 27 percent from 2007 to 2012 while Christmas trees sales have increased 20 percent, leaving fewer farmers to fill rising demand.

    One of the more popular trees among mid-Missouri customers is the Scotch pine, a tree that provides excellent needle retention as its needles do not fall out even when the tree has dried up.

    “It’s a very hardy tree, it can grow in the kind of soils that we have here, and the hot summers, and it does very well,” said Hank Stelzer, State Forestry Extension Specialist.

    Unsurprisingly, the Scotch pine is one of the most commonly planted trees in mid-Missouri. Christmas tree farmer Vernon Spaunhourst, owner of Heritage Valley Tree Farm in Washington, Mo., has been in the business for 25 years. He says that after planting his first field of Scotch pines 33 years ago, it still has not lost its popularity.

    “Scotch Pine – people still come out asking me for a Scotch pine, people love Scotch pine,” Spaunhorst said. “A big heavy tree, you can hang a lot of things on them.”

    When Missourians ask for Scotch pine, farmers can typically deliver. However, another popular tree – the Fraser fir – is more difficult to cultivate. A popular tree in North Carolina, Missouri farmers have tried to grow the Fraser fir with mixed success, Stelzer said.

    Spaunhorst said his farm has been blessed with soil that firs can grow in, but it is a very difficult tree to grow in Missouri.

    “Firs like northern states where it’s cool, where the ground is sandy and the ground drains real well. They don’t like high temperatures,” Spaunhorst said. “In the summertime, they struggle. A lot of the time I’ll see bark on the southwest side of the tree die because they can’t stand the hot sun.”

    One former Christmas tree farmer learned this the hard way. Sally Schmitt, owner of Schmitt Tree Farms, had to close her 52-year-old farm in 2013. Different factors contributed to this – time, age and commitment. Her farm had attempted to grow fir trees but failed.

    “Most Christmas tree farmers, when we were growing, were growing pines,” Schmitt said. “But now everyone wants Fraser fir. Those just don’t grow here. If you plant 1,000, you’ll get 100 that live.”

    When Spaunhorst had his first field of mature fir trees, business picked up. Instead of coming the first or second weekend in December, customers started coming during Thanksgiving weekend to ensure they cut down a fir tree. The farm would sell 80 percent of their trees then.

    “Our fir trees, that was our big, our big driver, when we put those trees in and people found out we had them, it was amazing,” Spaunhorst said.

    The Norway spruce is also popular among customers, but farmers are hesitant about investing in a field of them. Although they do not require a higher quality soil, they do take longer to mature, leading to a higher price. They also have poor needle retention.

    “We plant Norway spruce only because in that field, I can’t get anything else to grow, and Norway spruce will grow there,” Spaunhorst said. Even though planting Norway spruce comes with high risks, farmers will still plant them because it’s what the people want.

    ----------Posted on December 12, 2014 by in Student Work

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