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State's Christmas tree growers celebrate strong season

December 5, 2014

Christmas arrived early this year for tree farmers across the state, with local growers reaping the benefits of the first good growing season in years.

"It rained this summer, and it was wonderful," Robert Wendt, who runs Lost 40 Tree Farm with his wife, Kathleen, in central Hancock County, told the Daily Reporter. "Previously, for the last three or four years, it's been like the Arizona desert.

Not since the drought of 2012 have growers of fir, Scotch pine and other holiday trees had as much to crow about.

In a Purdue University news release, wood products specialist Dan Cassens, who owns his own tree farm in West Lafayette, said the 2012 drought had nearly everything looking like Charlie Brown's Christmas tree.

"We thought we could lose all the trees," Cassens said in the news release. "But the stronger trees prevailed, and last year the trees looked good by the time Christmas season came around.

"This year, with the rain and cooler weather, the trees just grew beautifully," Cassens said.

That's good news, as Indiana's Christmas tree industry is a sizeable financial sector of Indiana ag economy.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2012 Census of Agriculture, more than 89,000 Christmas trees were harvested from just over 2,500 acres on 161 farms throughout the state, generating revenues of just under $2 million.

Those numbers, however, were down significantly from 2007, when an Indiana University Kelley School of Business survey showed 231 Christmas tree and short-rotation woody crop farms in the state with 3,175 acres in production generating $2.66 million in revenue.

Sales this year have been good, however, said Rex Zenor, owner of Piney Acres Farm near Fortville.

"Sales are good. I have no complaint at all as far as that goes," Zenor said. "The rain came just when it was supposed to."

Lance Sambol is also pleased about the summer growing season, if for no other reason that it lightened his workload.

Sambol, who began growing trees in the fall of 2009 and specializes in Canaan firs, hopes to be open for the 2015 holiday season.

He didn't lose any trees during the drought because his seedlings were boxed; however, with no rain coming down, Sambol was forced to do a lot of hand watering.

"2012 was horrible," he said.

Though trees grew well this season, the full impact of the previous dry spell won't be felt for years, growers say.

Young seedlings, with root systems that are not fully established, are most susceptible to drought.

"We lost 100 percent of our seedlings for three or four years in a row," Wendt said.

Wendt hedges his bet against the weather by growing a variety of trees that perform in a variety of conditions, but a noticeable void will occur in 10 to 15 years, when the trees mature.

"We're going to have lots of big trees and lots of small trees with not much in between," he said.

But with a varied crop that includes dry land trees like Mediterranean firs and Colorado blue spruce, along with eastern and southwestern white pines, Wendt's operation is fairly resilient, he said.

"We always have trees," he said.

And though the immediate financial impact might not be huge, Zenor said, carrying that loss over 10 years adds up to a significant amount of money.

"We're on a seven- to 10-year rotation, so if you lose 1,000 trees at $2 a tree, that might not seem like much," Zenor said. "But if you carry that out 10 years and the tree is worth $100, that's a $100,000 loss."

As in most business scenarios, one person's loss is another's gain, and Christmas tree farming is no exception.

"Our wholesale business has picked up more than ever," Wendt said.

This year, a number of Boy Scout, church and civic organizations that previously purchased trees for their lots elsewhere have been approaching Wendt with a common refrain about their suppliers.

"Their trees died," he said.

With a good growing season behind them and the weather beginning to make everything in the county look a lot like Christmas, tree growers are getting into the holiday spirit.

Even those who won't be selling until next year.

"It's been a good year," said Sambol as he looks forward to next season. "I'm excited about it."

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