Local Christmas tree farms see success despite market shortage, drought

December 24, 2017 GMT

Every weekend since Thanksgiving, Douglas County families have been loading into their pickup trucks to visit local Christmas tree farms to cut down trees or take home one that were already freshly cut.

“It’s been the best season ever for my U-cut (farm),” said George Jones, owner of George’s Giant Christmas Trees in Azalea. “The population is growing in Southern Oregon and people like the atmosphere at the farm.” He said customers like making a family outing out of choosing their trees and seeing the steers, pigs and chickens at the farm.

George’s Giant Christmas Trees has been offering Douglas fir, noble fir, grand fir and Turkish fir trees since it was established in the 1980s. Jones bought the U-cut tree farm from its previous owners in 1993, and though he said operating a tree farm is very labor intensive, he enjoys being outdoors in the woods.

“I like turning two boxes of seedlings into a semi-load of trees 10 years later,” Jones said. Most of his trees stay local, though people come from as far as Ashland and Medford to cut their own trees at the Azalea farm.

Brothers Braden and Taylor Groth have also seen a busy year at Groth’s Tree Farm, between Roseburg and Glide.

The Groth family started a tree farm in Dixonville in 1982, then moved it up to their current location in 2002. Three years ago, Braden and Taylor Groth’s parents retired and passed the business on to their sons.

“One thing we found is there’s an overall shortage of Christmas trees everywhere, and our business has boomed in the last three years because of the shortage and high demand,” Braden Groth said.

Phil Adams, who co-owns Oakland Tree Farm with his wife, Kim Adams, said the trees people picked out this season were planted 6 to 9 years ago.

“And 6 to 9 years ago we were right in the recession,” Phil Adams said. “During the recession, pricing was down and volume was down, so those large growers weren’t really replanting.”

Though the large commercial wholesale market in Oregon is seeing an overall shortage, Adams said he was able to plant trees through the recession. Currently, he said he replants about 5,000 trees every year.

“People that came out to the U-cut were in good spirits and we had a lot of fun,” he said. “I think people were excited and in the holiday spirits early and we were there to help them out.” He said sales were immediately strong Thanksgiving weekend, when they opened for the season, and the positive trend continued through the following few weeks.

Phil Adams said he did raise prices at the farm this year, but that was a reflection of the rising costs of operating the farm, maintaining the rock roads, hiring a crew and offering free hot cocoa and cider. He said he needs to stay in business and make a profit while offering customers a fun experience and a good value for their trees.

“We’ve been in the business a long time and we and all the other local Christmas tree farmers are part of a close-knit community,” he said. “We did our part to spread a little Christmas cheer.”

However, drought conditions over the past few summers have been hard on new trees, and Branden Groth said his tree farm probably lost 60 percent of its seedlings in summer 2016.

“We tried to accommodate last year and plant more, but we might feel that 7 years from now when we go to harvest and the crop isn’t as full as we would have liked,” he said. This season, Groth’s Tree Farm has asked customers to only cut trees taller than 6 feet in order to keep more of the shorter ones available for future years when they might need more of them.

“We had to be a little bit innovative in the way we run the business,” Branden Groth said. The brothers have seen an uptick in business since they began supplementing their U-cut inventory with pre-cut trees from a family friend in Monroe, Oregon two years ago.

“It’s nice customers can come out and get the experience and on cold wet days if people aren’t willing to get muddy and cut their own trees, they can come get a pre-cut one,” he said.

Though some may think growing a tree farm is easy, he said it’s actually very labor intensive. After planting in February, tree farmers need to manage grass and weeds with herbicides or fertilizers in the spring, and prune and shear the trees in the summertime.

“It’s an all-year process, it’s not just plant them at the beginning of the year and then you have a product,” he said.

Phil Adams said he likes the idea of operating a mom-and-pop retailer. He planted the farm’s first trees in 1984 as a young forester working for Lone Rock Timber.

“It was always my dream to be a Christmas tree farmer and own a Christmas tree farm,” Adams said.