If your Christmas tree tastes mirror Clark Griswold’s in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” — tall, voluminous and raised locally — then the ideal conifer might be hard to find at an Illinois farm this season. Yet, growers want you to know that doesn’t mean the reduced supply is as sparse and frail as the sapling in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
“Around our farm, as I look at the crop available for harvest this year, I see nice trees that are 6 to 8 feet high. I can count up to about 5,500 trees. It’s a lot of trees, but if I was going to be open until December 20 like we used to be, I might need 8,000 trees to sell,” said George Richardson, co-owner of Richardson Farm in Spring Grove, which was Good Housekeeping’s pick in 2018 for best Christmas tree farm in Illinois. “And we don’t have that many.”
The Richardson family, fifth and sixth generation farmers whose three branches have planted Christmas trees on their property in McHenry County since 1981, took to Facebook this week to tell customers about the operation’s shortened selling season. It expects all 5,500 of its Christmas trees grown over 130 acres to be sold by Dec. 5.
Other local growers offer the same cautionary tale. Ben’s Christmas Tree Farm in Harvard is only open Thanksgiving weekend and the first weekend in December. Lee’s Trees in Lily Lake has a limited number of tall trees grown on site, but is delivering precut trees from its Wisconsin farm to supplement.
Pioneer Tree Farm in McHenry might have more tall trees available than usual, but it was closed to the public in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Triple K Pines in Union will be open for three weekends starting the day after Thanksgiving. Co-owner Brenda Moehling expects she and her husband, Dale, will sell 150 trees, including some purchased from a vendor in Wisconsin. Thankfully, they have a plentiful gift shop full of evergreen trimmings including wreaths, grave blankets and pillows — and gnomes — to keep sales going.
Moehling says the family business might focus solely on selling decorations in the years ahead.
“Trees take too long to grow and we’re already 71,” she said. “By the time they’re ready to mature, we’re gonna want to quit.”
Reasons for the shortage of towering, locally grown trees
When planting a crop, a Christmas tree farmer has to decide — or guesstimate — what varieties customers will want to buy almost a decade later when that crop is ready to be sold. Unfortunately for many local farms, owners underestimated how popular fir trees — with a dark blue-green color, fragrant scent and spreading, drooping branches — would become.
“Well, consumer preferences have gone away from the Scotch and white pines — the traditional Christmas trees we planted 20 years ago, 30 years ago and have gone more toward the Fraser fir/Canaan fir preferences. So, what we’re finding is we don’t have enough of those types of trees growing — and that’s what people want,” George Richardson said.
Seedlings planted this year won’t be ready to harvest for about eight years — or longer, depending on the variety and desired height.
“My personal opinion is that growers are having a hard time keeping up with the demand. We can’t just turn a switch and make more trees; it takes time, generally 8 to 10 years or more for a fir once you recognize the trend as being true and not just an aberration,” said Robert Richardson, president of the Illinois Christmas Tree Association — and brother of George Richardson.
Severe drought was contained to a small area — 6.5% — of Illinois north of Interstate 80 and near the Wisconsin border this summer and limited tree growth, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
“For example, consider a Fraser fir tree that was 8 feet tall last year. If we had an exceptionally good year of consistent rain, with no extreme temperatures, we might optimistically expect that tree to grow to be 9 or 10 feet tall before this sales season,” Chris Czarnowski, owner of Ben’s Christmas Tree Farm, wrote in an email to the Tribune. “But with the drought this year, it realistically has probably grown only several inches.”
The real damage caused by this year’s lack of rain, however, probably won’t be seen for another five to 10 years. Add to that the lingering effects of the widespread drought of 2012, which destroyed crops of seedlings and is now also contributing to the reduced availability of tall, mature trees this season.
“It’s sort of like grape growers, where a really bad cold spell can knock out wine/table grape production for a decade because that’s how long it takes to get vines established,” Trent Ford, Illinois state climatologist, wrote in an email to the Tribune.
Supply chain issues
Moehling and George Richardson say it’s been hard to find a wholesaler who can supply the statuesque trees their customers want.
“More people have these great rooms with cathedral ceilings and they would like 10, 12, 14-foot trees,” George Richardson said. “We bring in about 50 of the 12-footers from Wisconsin but I’m not able to get more than that.”
A sustainable tree harvest limits availability
Just because the trees are there, doesn’t mean you can sell them all in one season.
“As tall fir trees are in very high demand and short supply, we are trying to be careful to maintain a sustainable harvest,” Czarnowski wrote to the Tribune. “That is, we don’t want to decimate our supply of trees this year, which would lead to a worse shortage in the coming years. We want to make sure our customers have a good experience at the farm — nobody wants to drive out to a Christmas tree farm only to find an empty field!”
Fewer local growers
Christmas tree farming requires year-round work — especially to make sure the trees are properly irrigated during the summer. It’s not for everyone. Several growers mentioned other nearby farms that have thrown in the towel.
“There just aren’t enough farms left around here to meet the demand for choose and cut trees,” Czarnowski wrote. “And there is a significant barrier to entry — even Scotch pines (one of the faster growing trees) take about eight years to produce an average-sized tree in Illinois.”
Yet, George Richardson’s operation is expanding. His family bought 17 adjacent acres this year, which will soon be sown with Christmas trees. He thinks he can minimize the 15% to 18% loss of seedlings due to drought this year by boosting his plantings in 2022.
“We’d like to have too many trees — an oversupply — so that customers have a fantastic selection,” he said. “So we’ve just been planting extra heavy — 12- to 13,000 seedlings a year — for the past six, seven years.”
Each grower interviewedsaid customers who want an imposing tree should shop early — and expect to pay a little more for the popular fir trees.
Next year’s trees
George Richardson is optimistic.
“I think we’ll be in better condition next year — and certainly the year after that. We’ll get into that supply where we started planting that 12- to 13,000 seedlings every year. I’m guessing in two years there will be much, much better supply,” he said. “I have a lot of 4-foot tall trees. We’re just waiting for them to grow and it’s a slow process — about 12 inches a year is all we can expect out of them.”
Maybe next year’s hottest Christmas tree will be a tabletop version.