Jeff Roba doesn’t know how the COVID-19 restrictions will impact business for Christmas tree growers this season, but he’s optimistic the pandemic could be a positive.
Located in North Abington Township, 10 miles north of Scranton, Roba Family Farms draws plenty of customers from the Poconos and Lake Wallenpaupack, many of whom reside in New York City but have summer homes in the area. If the pandemic compels them to leave the city and wait things out in the small towns of northeastern Pennsylvania over the holidays, Roba believes his Christmas tree sales could rise.
“That’s a possibility,” he said. “It also helps that people are looking to get outside and do something, and coming here to choose a tree could hold more appeal as a destination for the day.”
Roba maintains between 70 and 100 acres of Christmas trees each year, the majority of which are sold on-site as fresh cut trees and a lesser percentage are sent to the wholesale market. While the farm does require everyone to wear masks, Roba said the pandemic hasn’t impeded his business operation as there is plenty of room to practice social distancing.
Roba isn’t the only grower in the area who sees COVID-19 as a potential boost to business this year.
Gary Siegel, who owns Whitlock Creek Farm in Falls, Wyoming County, planted 5,000 Christmas trees 4 years ago. The trees are nearing the height that consumers desire, and Siegel is predicting a busy season for area farms that offer fresh cut trees.
“These places are all outside, and people usually come with immediate family to pick out their tree, so it might be safer than going to a store indoors to buy an artificial tree,” he said.
A shift toward live Christmas trees would be a welcome trend for growers, who have faced increasing competition from the artificial market. According to the Pennsylvania Christmas Tree Growers Association, the state’s 1,400 Christmas tree farms ranks third in the nation, accounting for nearly 31,000 acres and producing about 1 million cut trees annually.
Michelle Keyser, communications director for the association, said the outdoor environment afforded by farms is just one advantage of choosing a live tree over an artificial counterpart. The association has developed a “Keep Christmas Safe!” campaign outlining practices that consumers and retail farms can follow to lessen the risk of shopping for a tree during the pandemic.
“Christmas trees are a crop, and they’re renewable. Going to a farm is a great way to shop local and support a very important segment of Pennsylvania’s agriculture industry,” she said. “We are certainly hopeful that more people choose a live tree this year.”
Growers are hopeful as well as they contend not only with competition from the artificial tree market, but the inherent risk of a sales season that is typically concentrated within four weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Aside from the uncertainty of COVID-19, the weather presents the greatest challenge during the brief sales season. If snow or rain falls on a busy weekend sales day, it could result in a major financial hit to growers.
“You work with these trees all year and it all comes down to those four weeks of the year to make your money,” said Gavin Kross of Daniels’ Christmas Trees in Harding. “You don’t even factor your time and equipment into it or it would really be an eye opener.”
Kross has 13 acres of Christmas trees that he runs as a “pick-your-own” operation. Customers choose their tree and Kross cuts it down and takes it to their vehicle.
He said the second weekend following Thanksgiving is the busiest for sales, and despite the hectic pace it’s an enjoyable time of year.
“For a lot of people, coming to get their tree at the farm is a chance to re-unite with old friends and spend some time together as a family,” Kross said. “I like it and it is a busy time, but the season goes by very quickly.”
Roba said he doesn’t view the concentrated sales season as a financial risk because it remains fairly consistent each year. If you sell 1,000 trees one season, he said, you can expect to sell the same amount the following year because people want Christmas trees.
Still, Roba said competition from artificial trees is shrinking the market for real trees by a small percentage, but the pandemic could change that this year.
“Because of the outdoor appeal offered by farms, you might hang on to that 2-3% that would’ve switched to an artificial tree this year,” Roba said.
On the supply side of things, consistency is replaced by cyclical trends when it comes to Christmas tree production. When the stock of trees decreases and prices rise, farmers plant more until the market becomes flooded and growers cut back until the next cycle of demand outpacing supply.
According to Siegel, successful growers stagger their plantings so the trees don’t reach market size all at once. Five years ago, however, a large farm in North Carolina had 300,000 trees ready at the same time, and when those trees were cut and hit the market it created a glut, he said.
“That has leveled off now and today there’s a demand again,” Siegel said. “We started getting lots of calls from customers and wholesalers looking for trees for resale on their lots.”
This year, according to Roba, there’s a shortage of Christmas trees on the market and that could drive up prices for consumers. Businesses that buy from wholesale operations to stock their lots have had trouble finding trees at a reasonable price, he said. As a result, the resale businesses may be forced to pass on the increased costs to customers. According to the National Christmas Tree Association, the average cost for a live tree last year was $78.
“You can’t take a loss intentionally. I check out prices all the time from resale lots and the big box stores, and I’ve definitely seen an uptick in prices over the last two years,” Roba said. “That could be a factor this year, but if the weather is good on the busy sales days, particularly weekends, people will find a way to come out and get their tree.”