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Originally published: 2012-12-19 16:15:55
Last modified: 2012-12-19 16:15:55

State of the industry

Matthew Hundley / (matthew.hundley@averyjournal.com)

Matthew Hundley / (matthew.hundley@averyjournal.com)
When it comes to the state of the Christmas tree industry, it is easy to find evidence of many trends: positive, negative or stagnant. According to some, however, the evidence of positive trends may finally be on the upswing after years of low demand that resulted in dipping prices and excess inventory.
To help understand the state of the industry in Avery County, The Avery Journal-Times sat down with longtime tree grower Ben Baird to get his take on where the industry stands compared to the recent and distant past.
Baird planted his first fields with Fraser fir in the late 1970s, while he was still a student at N.C. State University, where he was completing a degree in horticulture. Baird began his operation alongside his father, Ralph Baird, who had recently retired from a career as a mail carrier before taking up the challenge of growing Christmas trees. Baird has also grown some rhododendron, native ornamentals, shade trees and other ornamentals.
With more than 30 years of experience as a medium-sized, full-time Avery County Christmas tree grower, Baird has experienced the ups and downs of the many decades, and has a good eye for the trends. According to Baird, the current state of the industry is not necessarily good, but it is looking up.
Baird cut his first crop of trees in the mid-1980s, a time when the market for Christmas trees was very different than it is now.
“It has changed a lot over the years,” Baird said, noting the value of the industry to the people of Avery County. “It has been a blessing to have the trees and very good area to grow them in. The Lord has blessed us with a great area as far as being a natural area for the Fraser fir. It has been a blessing to the people here in this county as far as income, but that has definitely changed over the past few years.”
In the last five to six years, the industry that supported so much of Avery County’s population for decades proved to be less reliable than farmers had expected. Trees planted seven years before, suddenly had no buyers. Unlike many ornamental plants, Fraser firs cannot be pruned to prevent growth, and the limited Christmas season means that farmers invest seven to eight years in hopes of selling their trees in a window of a matter of months. While the risk of such a venture is clear, Baird remembers a time when it seemed less like a risk and more like a simple long-term investment.
“In 1986, people were knocking at our doors, and I remember it like that for the next 10 or 15 years,” Baird said. “We couldn’t find enough trees and had too many buyers. It was word of mouth and people would come to you and you’d have to turn people down. At the time, the price was probably as good as it is now, or better in some instances. I think the first ones I sold, six to sevens, were probably about $18.”
Baird also remembers when the industry was at its peak; a time when the selling price of trees had risen somewhat to meet the increased cost of pest control and other costs that have risen over the years.
“Ten years ago, the market was still good. We probably peaked in price. Everybody was satisfied; people could find the trees they needed. The most I have gotten for a six-to-seven was about $24 or $25,” Baird said. “Now, you can become so efficient, but you still have a lot of cost in them. A lot of hand labor.”
That peak around 2002 led a lot of growers to increase planting, staking everything on the market that, at the time, seemed to be on a steady, reliable upward trend. Those farmers had no way of knowing that those excess trees would come to market at the same time that the economic recession sent the nation into a financial tailspin.
“I think you had all these trees that had been planted that they planted 10 years ago,” Baird said. “You know, there seemed to be no limit to what we could sell at one time. Everybody was planting more and more trees, thinking they could sell them and make a little more money. Everything came off at once, then the economy went sour. You had all these trees and no market established for them.
When you have people coming to your door, begging for your trees, you don’t think about marketing.”
After years of dropping sales and falling prices, the fall seemed to level off and possibly begin to recuperate in just the last couple of years.
“In 2008, when things hit, you lost a tremendous amount of housing. People losing their homes and jobs; money was tight,” Baird said. “As far as today, I see it starting to change a little bit. I think a lot of growers are probably not setting as many in this county. This year is better than last year. I think in the next two to three years, there will be more of a shortage of trees. It is working itself out.”
In addition to the oversupply of trees coming back under control, buyers are beginning to regain confidence in their customers’ buying power.
“People are starting to look for trees a little more, especially individuals, the people that sell produce, the garden centers, they are looking for good, heavy trees, and still at a good price,” said Baird. “There are more people filtering in than we have seen in years that are looking for trees.”
In spite of what he sees as positive trends in the industry, Baird admitted that he would be reluctant to recommend the Christmas tree business to a new farmer.
“I am not sure I would. It is still a good business, I think, and it is improving. I don’t want to be negative about it; I think the trees will always sell, but the price of land is so high, and so is the cost of doing it. It is worth it to a point, but it is something you really have to think about. It is harder these days between the pests and the ground. When you use your ground for 30 years, you use up the nutrients and things and it is harder to grow the third and fourth crop.”
Unlike many small or medium growers, Baird has managed to maintain much of his customer base and avoid over planting. The trick, Baird said, is in establishing trusting relationships that stand the test of a rough economy, then growing trees to order for those customers, rather than setting extra trees with the expectation of finding new buyers.
“Within a five- to eight-year period, we pretty much had the customers we needed and we have had them ever since. We haven’t tried to grow a whole lot more than that. You take care of your customers first and foremost. You keep in contact with them, you give them the size they need and quality. You deal with them on a personal level and they trust you. Once you get somebody that you trust, and they send you the same quality and size that you need.”
The downside to that approach, Baird said, is that it eliminated the need for marketing for many years, so that now, in the Internet age, he has some catching up to do when it comes to spreading the word if he seeks out new customers.
“Now, I am a little bit behind as far as websites. If I needed new customers now, I’d be in trouble. Seems like I do better one-on-one when I am talking to people. We picked up a couple of new customers, but mostly through word of mouth.”
Baird’s experience as a longtime grower makes him a valuable resource when it comes to assessing the state of the industry. His familiarity with the trends of the past as well as the increasing demands on production make him an authority on what it takes to keep a Christmas tree farm viable in tough times. Not every farm was able to see its way through the last few years, however.
According to Doug Hundley of Avery County Cooperative Extension, while many farms did not survive the economic downturn, the ones that pulled through are seeing the same hopeful trends that Baird described.
“What I am hearing from all the guys that I work with is that their sales have continued to rise, just like last year,” Hundley said. “There is a clear indication that the big dip that we went into has bottomed out and now we are coming out, but we don’t know how long that process will take.”
Hundley also noted, however, that while sales have improved, the price of trees has not. With the customer base slowly making its way back, the next challenge, Hundley said, will be to work the prices back to the point that farmers can once again make profit on a crop that typically requires between seven to eight years of financial investment.