Local Christmas tree farms navigate obstacles to bring holiday cheer
There is still a market for real Christmas trees grown out of the soil. Each year, this market is served by tree farms such as Grupp’s Christmas Trees in Muddy Creek Township and Cypher’s Tree Farm in Butler Township, which typically open on Black Friday and only operate during the holiday season.
For most operators, such as Jack Grupp and Randy Cypher, this is a one-month-per-year side hustle to make some extra cash. But it comes with its own set of headaches.
One of the most persistent issues faced by Christmas tree farm owners in recent years has been inflation. Due in large part to the impact of COVID-19 and foreign conflicts, every link in the supply chain has become more expensive to maintain, and the agriculture sector has felt the strain.
“It's affecting all of us in every aspect of our life, from fuel oil to the price of fertilizer to the price of equipment,” Grupp said. “Fertilizer has just gotten unbelievably expensive.”
“I paid more for a tractor this year than I have for any of my cars, and cars have gone up in price too,” Cypher said. “In general, everything else costs more, so I pay more for all the supplies I use.”
While Grupp has not raised the prices of his trees this season to compensate for the impact of inflation, he admits that staying profitable is a challenge.
“I could have never done this if I didn’t have a good full-time job to support me when my hobby turned serious,” said Grupp.
Tree farmers already have plenty of obstacles to face on the farms. Two major factors that can cut into their annual crop are the three D’s: disease, deer and drought.
Cypher said deer have a habit of coming onto his farm and devouring the buds from young trees when they are only one to two feet tall. This is especially prevalent in Pennsylvania, which is notable for its high population of deer.
“They eat the buds off the little trees which keeps them from growing up,” Cypher said. “Once (the deer) get bigger, they like to rub their antlers on the trees, and that generally destroys the tree.”
Aside from deer, tree farmers also have to avoid diseases that prey on the types of trees that are popular around Christmas. One of those diseases is “needle cast,” a fungal infection specific to fir trees that causes them to shed their needles.
“We need to spray about six times in the spring for that,” Cypher said.
Another disease to watch out for is phytophtora root rot, caused by a fungus in the soil that attacks the roots of the tree. At its peak, the disease can cause the tree to wither and die.
“There’s no known cure for that for Christmas trees at this point,” Cypher said.
Due to the threats from deer and disease cutting into his crop, Cypher decided to supplement his stock by importing and selling precut trees from two other farms.
“Eight to 10 years ago, I had to estimate how many trees I would sell, and how many the deer and disease would damage,” Cypher said. “I didn't do that quite right, so I had to buy some trees from other growers.”
Of course, Christmas tree species are heavily dependent on the weather. They need just the right amount of moisture to stay alive, and that isn’t something that tree farmers can control, especially ones like Grupp who do not have an irrigation system.
“Just like a human, if you don't have enough moisture, your body will die from dehydration,” Grupp said. “If you have too much, you’ll die of oversaturation, so it does work both ways.”
Grupp said he is fortunate to be working in Pennsylvania, which has a relatively moderate climate. However, he — like everyone else — is still subject to the whims of Mother Nature.
“With this weather pattern going on, having a mass of rain at one time and prolonged periods of dry … it's a struggle,” Grupp said.
Another obstacle for local Christmas tree farms to face is the availability of permanent, plastic Christmas trees that can be put into and taken out of storage each year and displayed for many, many Christmases.
“Some people want to go into their attic and pull out their artificial Christmas tree, and maybe give it a bath and put it up and take it down and put it back in the attic,” Grupp said. “The artificial trees have taken a large chunk of the Christmas tree business.”
While he admits that using an artificial tree would be a more convenient and cheaper option in the long run, Grupp said “it just isn’t as magical” as having a real tree from nature — not to mention it isn’t as sustainable.
“To us, it doesn’t give you the smell of Christmas or the sight of Christmas. It’s an artificial tree. It’s made of plastic,” Grupp said. “They're all made in China, so it's not a good thing for the environment at all.”
For those still in the market for a good, real tree, supplies may already be running low in Butler County.
It isn’t uncommon for Christmas tree farms to run out of stock and close for the season earlier than anticipated.
While that hasn’t happened at Cypher’s Tree Farm yet, he has closed his “cut your own” fields for the season to allow his stock of trees to replenish for the future.
The only trees for sale at Cypher’s at the moment are precut and have been imported from two other farms in Pennsylvania.
“I need to stop selling from my fields because if I keep cutting out of my fields … I'm cutting into next year's crop and I won't have enough for next year,” Cypher said.