Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 23, 2012

Christmas tree growers still suffer from summer's drought

Special to the Record-Eagle

LANSING — Ken Prince is among many Michigan Christmas tree growers who face a potential business crisis because of last summer's drought.

"Drought was bad for planting new trees," said Prince, who owns KP Tree and Nursery in Allendale. "We are going to ramp up the planting by 30 percent to make up our loss from the drought. We will only see the loss in eight to nine years because we probably won't have enough trees at that time."

"The real impact is not about this year's trees," said Bert Cregg, a Michigan State University horticulture professor.

Cregg said Christmas trees need eight to 10 years to grow to marketable size so the impact won't immediately be known.

Michigan ranks third in the national Christmas tree market, following Oregon and North Carolina, Cregg said.

Michigan has 700 Christmas tree growers, according to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

The annual wholesale value is about $40 million per year.

The industry brings benefits to the state's economy in several aspects.

"Farmers are hiring local workers and the tree retail industry needs trucks for transportation," said Marsha Gray, executive director of the Michigan Christmas Tree Association in Howell.

"We now have over 600 growers in the state," Gray said. "The biggest growing counties are Missaukee, Macomb and Muskegon.

"We are a hot spot in the Christmas tree-growing industry," she said.

Gray said one possible reason is the state's physical environment, like its soil and climate.

"Based on natural resources, we are able to grow eight to ten different kinds of trees," she said. "People in the Northwestern coast and North Carolina can grow only one kind of tree."

Prince's company is one of many such family-owned businesses.

"We are three-generation tree growers," he said. "My great grandfather started the business and now my children are helping me out and working on the farm."

Prince's company sells both wholesale and retail. It ships trees to Texas and Florida and sells to stores in the Grand Rapids area.

Prince said his business is doing better this year, with orders staying the same but with new customers.

He said that's because fewer people in the state are growing Christmas trees. "Most of them are older guys and lots of younger generations are doing other work."

Gray, from the state Christmas Tree Association, said that's because nursery business people won't see short-term benefits.

She also said the market is changing.

"Trees don't change, but consumers are expecting different things," she added. "Business owners need to provide something different to customers."

SILU GUO writes for Michigan State University's Capital News Service.