Vermont's Christmas tree farmers scramble to meet high demand
On a recent weekday at Whites Christmas Tree Farm in Essex, longtime employee Mark Tourville was easy to spot amidst the trees in his neon yellow waterproof coat and big work boots. Tourville took a 9-foot Frasier fir from a customer and loaded it into the tree shaker, a machine that shakes off snow, dead needles and other vestiges of the forest.
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"You’ll find small critters in there, and that’s why we like to shake ‘em down," he explained.
Tourville used another machine to wrap the tree in red plastic mesh, then loaded it on top of the customer's SUV.
It was only a few days after Thanksgiving — the typical start of the Christmas tree season — but Whites was already running low on trees. Owner Bob White said there was a good chance they’d run out after the first weekend in December.
So what's causing this shortage? Did the Grinch steal thousands of Vermont's trees?
Not quite. Last year, demand for trees spiked as more people stayed home during the pandemic. Many farmers decided to cut and sell more mid-sized trees than usual to meet that demand. The over-harvest led to fewer trees in the fields this year.
To make up the difference, many farmers have been trying to buy pre-cut trees from wholesalers to offer customers who want a certain size of tree. That was Bob White’s plan.
"I would’ve loved to have bought a couple thousand," he said. "I bought zero."
By the time he started calling around to wholesalers, they were all sold out.
"Pre-cut is nutty right now," said Jane Murray of Murray Hill Farm in Waterbury Center, one of the 70 or so tree farms in Vermont. Her family doesn't sell pre-cut trees, but that hasn't stopped other farmers from calling her up, begging her to sell them some trees. That's never happened before, she said.
Murray's originally from Texas. She started texting friends back home, asking them how much they're paying for their Christmas trees. The numbers shocked her.
"I have one friend in Texas, they just bought theirs," she said. "Same one that we would sell for $45, they just spent $180 on it."
The Christmas tree shortage is a national issue. Out-of-staters are willing to pay a premium this year for Vermont trees. Murray said one farmer near Barre told her that his wholesaler sold his entire crop of pre-cut trees to a buyer in New York, leaving the Barre farmer high and dry.
"It was really sad to hear that, because in this industry, especially in Vermont, a lot of people do it for the local family aspect of it all," she said. "It kind of takes the spirit of Christmas right out of you."
The pandemic isn’t the only factor to blame for the shortage: There’s also climate change and extreme weather. Over the past decade floods have killed a lot of young trees across the state.
This year’s warm and wet fall also caused problems for wholesale farmers in the Northeast Kingdom. It was too muddy for many of them to get their trailers and equipment through the fields to harvest trees in November, which caused delays in filling orders.
Then, on top of everything, farmers are dealing with the labor shortage, like everyone else. Jane Murray even hired a regular babysitter so she could put in more hours at the farm. Many of those extra costs get passed down to the customer.
All told, Christmas tree prices are up about 30% this year across the country.
"It kind of takes the spirit of Christmas right out of you."- Jane Murray, Murray Hill Farm
This year felt so out-of-the-ordinary that it even led one farmer to skip town entirely. Mike Isham of Isham's Family Farm in Williston knew going into the season that he would have a hard time meeting demand. They oversold a bunch of their midsized trees last year, they couldn’t find any pre-cut trees to buy at a reasonable price, and, to add insult to injury, their crop was hit hard by invasive caterpillars this past spring.
That perfect storm led Isham and his wife to get in their RV and drive to Arizona.
"It’s unbelievable down here. The sun just shines all the time," Isham said from the road. "We’ve never been able to take time off, so we call this our honeymoon." He said they'll be back in time for the sugaring season.
For Vermonters who are still having a tough time finding a tree, there are some other options: For one, there are fake trees, but those are also hard to come by because of the global supply chain issues.
Or, you could always take your ax and head into the Green Mountain National Forest. If you buy a $5 permit, the Christmas tree of your choosing is yours for the taking.
Copyright 2021 Vermont Public Radio