With soaring shipping costs, Christmas tree farms relying on local supply

  • Aurianna Anderson of Winchester, N.H., and her mother, Cristen Lett of New Salem, dug up Anderson’s Christmas tree this year at West Brook Tree Farm in Athol and will plant it after the season. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

  • Ethan Stone, head tree farmer at West Brook Tree Farm in Athol, helps Chelsea Martin Gardner and her son Aiden Martin, 6, pick out a tree on Monday. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • At West Brook Tree Farm in Athol, you can cut, or dig, your own tree from the fields or grab a precut one at the stand on South Main Street. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • The Green River Farm Stand has Christmas trees and other decorations for sale on Conway Drive off of the Mohawk Trail in Greenfield. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 12/9/2021 1:30:08 PM
Modified: 12/9/2021 1:29:41 PM

As those looking to get into the Christmas spirit shop for their trees, a shortage might make picking the perfect one a bit harder.

Farm owners who both grow and order wholesale trees have cited shipping costs, past droughts and a thinning workforce as likely causes for this year’s shortage, which has been the topic of media coverage nationwide.

National reports, including by the Washington Post and CNBC, have said it will be difficult this year for consumers in the market for real Christmas trees thanks to a combination of supply chain disruptions and weather disasters influenced by climate change.

“We have not had a nationwide shortage like this since I have been involved in tree farming,” Ethan Stone, head tree farmer at Athol’s West Brook Tree Farm, wrote in an email. “My family began planting and selling Christmas trees in the 1950s.”

Stone added that it isn’t just moving trees that has gotten pricey, but also the cost of accompanying materials.

“The price of all of our supplies, including seedlings, fertilizer, fuel and other materials, has gone up significantly, as has the cost of purchasing precut trees,” he wrote.

Due to the seven- to eight-year growth period needed for fir trees to mature, reaching back to pinpoint a specific reason has been difficult. Although stock variety has been limited, local tree farmers still report having enough trees to fill homes for the holidays.

For many, Christmas tree shopping is a tradition that kick-starts the holiday season. Greenfield resident Feliesha Prevost said she enjoys “looking around at all the different trees and spending time together” with loved ones. This year, she opted for a change of scenery, heading to Greenfield’s Emerson Family Tree Farm for the first time.

“It was always a tradition for me getting a Christmas tree every year at the same spot,” she said, “but I’m trying something different.”

Others have gone greater distances in pursuit of this year’s tree. Beata Skrzynski, a Northampton resident who had been celebrating Christmas in her native Poland, said it is customary in her home country to buy a Christmas tree “as close to the holiday as you possibly can” to “keep it longer than everybody else.” Regardless, having a tree, she said, is a centerpiece for holiday togetherness.

“We try not to focus on the presents under the tree,” she said of the holiday. “We try to focus on the family close to us and being a family together.”

For Christmas tree farmers, putting trees in people’s houses has become a tradition in itself, having built a community over years of service.

“Over the last 10 years or so, we’ve built up a clientele in this area,” said Gary Billings, co-owner of Montague’s Ripley Farm.

Some report that this year’s shortage of outsourced trees has been a new challenge to overcome in an effort to keep the tradition strong.

To compensate, farmers have been relying primarily on their homegrown stock, rather than lean on large quantities of outsourced trees from Canada, Vermont and other locations as they had in previous years. The main reason cited has been an increased cost of transportation.

“Trucks coming down from the Canadian border have been charging exorbitantly to bring trees into the United States,” said Debbie Emerson, who runs Emerson Family Tree Farm in Greenfield.

“It’s very expensive to get truck drivers,” Billings said, adding that the cost to move a load of trees had skyrocketed from $1,200 to $8,000 this year. “It used to be after Thanksgiving, you’d see truckload after truckload coming down (Interstate) 91.”

Emerson said she’s also observed that drought has had an effect on the growth of Christmas trees in recent years, leading to a smaller quantity of acceptable trees.

“If you look at the weather records ... there’s droughts. When there’s droughts, you lose a lot of trees,” she said. “That drought could be seven years ago and that’s reflecting on the numbers now.”

Troy Emerson, a farm worker and son of Debbie Emerson, cited a “generational issue” where many tree farmers are starting to retire with no interested successors stepping up to take their place. Billings said he personally knows older farmers who closed up their shops for good, using growing difficulties as a reason to finally call it quits.

“Two or three (farmers) that I know have aged out and given up,” he said.

Riley Farm, which usually orders 75 wholesale trees to accompany its own stock of trees, ordered zero this year. The good news, workers said, is that their own stock has been sufficient thus far, even as business has been busy.

“So far, we’ve been able to keep up,” Billings said. “People are pretty happy with the trees out in the field.”

“As we did last year, we have plenty of trees in the field and hundreds to choose from and cut for customers,” Stone wrote. “Our high-quality precut trees are more limited in quantity than in some years, and we are unwilling to put low-quality trees in our precut pen, so we expect to sell out of our precut trees sooner than usual, possibly within another week or so, at which point we will bring in a few more of our best quality trees in the field to our precut area for those unable to cut a tree themselves.”

Tree farmers are unsure of what might happen in the future, especially with their line of work seeming to narrow.

“If a lot of places haven’t been replanting ... I don’t expect a shortage is going to ease up much,” Billings said.

Stone said he is optimistic that the replanting will happen, however.

“I believe in about seven to eight years, we may see an overabundance of available trees due to younger people wanting to start a farm with news of the shortage,” Stone wrote. “Until then, supplies will be scarce for many small tree farms, although I do believe we will continue to have many great options for those wanting a tree at our farm for the next several years.”

Reach Julian Mendoza at 413-772-0261, ext. 261 or jmendoza@recorder.com.


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