For many, thinking about decorating for Christmas doesn’t start until the weekend after Thanksgiving, or the day after Halloween at the earliest, but for Christmas tree growers around the country, planning for this Christmas started eight or nine years ago.
The trees harvested this year were planted in 2008 or 2009, the height of the Great Recession. While many larger growers in Oregon and North Carolina — the top two Christmas tree-producing states — decided to plant fewer trees because of dwindling demand, according to the National Christmas Tree Association, Nebraska growers didn’t seem to change their planting habits.
“We plant back more than we sell to account for any tree loss or trees that end up looking weird,” said Judi Korte of Prairie Woods in Hallam. “We often plant two trees for every one we sell.”
Korte owns and operates Prairie Woods with her husband Les Korte, president of the Nebraska Christmas Tree Growers Association.
The economy in 2008 and 2009 didn't change their management decisions, Judi Korte said, but some producers did make adjustments to their operations, causing shortages of fresh-cut trees across the country.
Prairie Woods is a small operation, with about 2 acres of concolor fir, Canaan fir and white pine trees. The Kortes' goal in operating Prairie Woods as their retirement hobby is to sell the experience rather than just the tree.
“We hide ornaments in the trees, have branches for children to decorate, and we offer hot chocolate and candy canes,” Judi Korte said. “We never wanted to be a big tree farm, we just want a little niche.”
Stan Obermueller and his wife, Elizabeth, took over management of Windmill Pines Tree Farm near Seward from Elizabeth’s parents, Martin and Etta Stork, about six years ago. Although the Obermuellers weren’t very involved in the early years of the tree farm, they helped plant the first saplings on Easter Sunday in 1968, before leaving to teach in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
During the recession, they stayed consistent, anticipating that about half the trees they planted would die or be unwieldy and not grow straight, Stan Obermueller said.
While their planting habits didn’t change during the recession, Korte and Obermueller both lost trees during the severe drought of 2012.
Korte said Prairie Woods fared better than most producers thanks to irrigation, and losses were minimal. Obermueller described 2012 as “awful, just awful.”
That summer, he watered his trees with garden hoses and sprinklers.
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“I thought we were in good shape, and then came winter with widely varying temperatures, harsh winds and no moisture to speak of,” Obermueller said.
When springtime came, he noticed the tops of the 8- and 9-foot Canaan firs he planned to sell were dead — sometimes along with the rest of the tree. Obermueller had a stash of concolor firs that he had been unable to sell previous holiday seasons, a supply he all but exhausted after two or three years.
Now the Obermuellers are rebuilding their supply of concolor and Canaan firs.
“For the third year in a row, we have brought in trees from Michigan to be able to meet our demand after losing so many trees in 2012,” Stan Obermueller said.
Both producers have noticed an increase in demand the past few years. Prairie Woods closed for the season Dec. 2, the first day of the second weekend of sales, because the farm sold out trees. It even harvested a few trees from next year’s crop.
Obermueller attributes high turnout the first weekend to great weather. The temperatures were in the 50s and 60s the first and second weekends of sales. While favorable weather helped bring people out to search for the right Christmas tree, it also caused Obermueller some concern that he might not be able to stay open until Christmas, something he strives to do each year.
“I had a field of Canaan fir this year, they were just absolutely beautiful, ranging in size from 6 feet up to 9 1/2 feet,” Obermueller said. “There were 150 in that field, and now I think I’ve got four.”
Obermueller typically plans for it to take two or three years to clear-cut a field.
Neither producer has increased prices the past few years, although Korte mentioned that Prairie Woods might need to in the future, considering all the mowing, pruning and other labor that goes into producing a tree.
The National Christmas Tree Association collects data on tree prices across the country, and since 2008, the average price of a tree has almost doubled — from $36.50, to $74.70 in 2016.
Obermueller hasn't increased his basic prices the past three or four years, and he doesn't plan to in the near future. He charges about $11 to $12 per foot for firs, and less for pines. He tries to price his trees between $69 and $72, but for a really premium tree, he'll charge up to $15 per foot.
"I'm not afraid to put a high price on a really high-quality tree; those are usually the first to go," Obermueller said. "When I start to see customer resistance to price, then I'm going to have to reconsider."