Bagworms and Buck Antlers--a Look at Life in the Local Christmas-Tree Trade
But then John Feezer III's mind works differently. Tooling about his undulating acreage on a lawn tractor, 47-year-old Feezer is single-mindedly fixated on another upcoming date: Dec. 25. Consider it an occupational hazard that comes from having your house overlook thousands of Christmas trees.
Feezer is a fir farmer--a tongue-twisty way of saying he raises Douglas firs (and some white pines and spruce) for use as Christmas trees. He has seven acres planted in pine, which pretty much makes him just a weekend warrior in the multimillion-dollar industry dedicated to putting evergreens in the family room each December. Feezer's Farm is a choose-and-cut operation, meaning tree seekers wander amid the in-ground wares seeking their perfect tree, which they then cut down themselves.
"It's a nice hobby," says Feezer, a construction manager by trade. "We really enjoy having people come up here at Christmastime. Everybody is happy and in the Christmas spirit, and the kids have a great time."
But before all the fun can begin, there's work to do. The grass and weeds need to be cut from around each tree. The firs themselves must be trimmed of any superfluous and ungainly branches that mar the classic conical shape. Feezer wields an elaborate electric trimmer for this task. It looks like a fancy-pants weed whacker, only the blades are steel and it's powered by a motorcycle battery strapped to his back. He sweeps the blades up and down each fir's flanks, sending errant growth flying as the desired symmetry emerges. It takes six to eight years for a fir to grow from an ungainly seedling into a seven- to nine-foot-tall tree ready for strapping onto an SUV roof. Some of the trees Feezer is trimming this afternoon went into the ground during President Bill Clinton's first term.
Trees of all sizes can be found along the rows, from fledgling pines only Charlie Brown could love, to towering old-timers topping out at 15 feet or more. Feezer admits that his inventory-control methods are minimal. He just doesn't know how many trees he has. "We don't use a computer or anything to track inventory," he says. "We're not that sophisticated. I think we'll have 500 to 600 trees ready to sell this year."
Feezer got into the business back in the mid-1970s, when looking for a way to utilize the family-owned land. A few mistakes were made in the early going (like planting the rows too close together, making mowing a nightmare). He first grew Scotch pine, then the king of Christmas-tree trade. But firs have pretty much pushed Scotch pines out of the picture on tree plantations across the country. The firs are more disease- and bug-resistant, have a good shape, hold their needles well once cut, and have sturdy branches to handle a heavy ornament load. Feezer sold his first trees for around $8. Today, a nicely turned-out fir costs $45.
"Our business has been great," Feezer says. "Last year we sold pretty much every available tree we had, probably around 450."
Feezer's experiences seem to run counter to the stats collected on the National Christmas Tree Association Web site. This tree-growers trade group reports a marked decline in the production and sales of real trees. In 1990, the Xmas tree market was pretty much evenly split between fake trees and real trees, with each occupying about 50 percent of the trade. In 2002, however, 70 percent of all consumer-displayed trees were artificial. In raw numbers, real trees slipped from more than 35 million sold in 1990 to just over 22 million last year.
Though Christmas trees are grown in every Maryland county, the state has never been a powerhouse in the trade. (Oregon, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Michigan are among the big-boy tree producers.) However, the business seems to be rebounding here.
"Things are in the upswing in the state," says Dan Blickenstaff, president of the Maryland Christmas Tree Association, who runs a sizable tree farm outside Hagerstown. "There was a bit of a glut of real tree growers 10 years or so ago, but some farmers are retiring out of the business. The market demand and the number of growers in Maryland are well-matched now."
Blickenstaff estimates some 600,000 Maryland-grown Christmas trees were sold last year, raised by some 300 to 400 growers (mostly part-timers like Feezer). He's confident that there's now a bit of a backlash against fake trees, with a generation raised on plastic pines coming around to the attributes of the real things.
"Thanks to advances made in genetics, especially in the firs, the trees are now almost maintenance free," Blickenstaff says. "They are also environmentally friendly. Real trees are renewable and recyclable. If you really want to help the environment, use a real tree versus an artificial tree."
The national association makes a similar pitch to the green end of the consumer spectrum, noting on its Web site that the 1 million acres of Christmas trees currently under cultivation generates the oxygen requirements for 18 million people. Fake trees, meanwhile--largely made in China--are said to contain "non-bio-degradable plastics and possible metal toxins such as lead, cadmium, and organo-tins."
If Feezer faces a fickle marketplace for his wares, he can take some comfort in the fact that his choose-and-cut segment of the tree business is growing, up from 25 percent of the trade in 1993 to 35 percent last year. And he clearly feels the see-and-saw method is the consumer's best bet.
"Up north they're cutting Christmas trees now--putting them in box cars and refrigerating them until it's time to bring them down here," he says. "That's the disadvantages of buying a precut tree--you don't know where or it came from, or when."
While planting pines is less labor intensive than raising corn or livestock, it does have its hassles. There are bagworms, for example. As Feezer strolls among his wares he pauses now and again to pick ugly little teardrop-shaped satchels--bags, if you will--off some of the branches. These are the handiwork of insect larvae that feast on needles and use a silklike substance to weave little homes for themselves. Unchecked, they can wreak havoc on a tree farm. Feezer says he's been lucky, and has never had to resort to chemical spraying to deal with the destructive bugs.
As it turns out, significantly larger critters give Feezer the greatest headaches. "The biggest problem we have is deer," Feezer says. "When the buck's antlers first grow they have a covering on them called velvet, which they like to scrape off on young trees. They leave their scent this way, too. All those trees in the woods, and they have to come out and use mine. I guess it's the right texture."
It's not hard to find buck-rubbed firs among Feezer's younger stock. Often the bark is bruised or rubbed clean away, and some branches are snapped off.
But bucks and bagworms be damned, Feezer says he'll be ready for customers to start hacking away at his wares come the first Saturday after Thanksgiving. He'll be open every weekend after that until the big day itself.
"I did have a couple of people who came January 5 looking for a tree," Feezer says. "They were Russian Orthodox, who have a different Christmas day. They were delighted that I would sell them a tree."
And so raising pines is no picnic, but it does provide a burst of cash for the holidays. But what's the hardest part in running a pine plantation--pulling out the old stumps and putting in new seedlings in April? Painstakingly mowing the tree rows all summer long? Or perhaps dealing with the crush of saw-wielding customers come December? The answer is none of the above.
"Maybe that the hardest thing," Feezer says with a grin, "is picking out the right tree for our own use."
The Maryland Christmas Tree Association has a list of area Christmas-tree growers and sources.
The 2009 City Paper Holiday Guide
The Gifts That Count (11/18/2009)
The presents that have stayed in our writers' thoughts
The Wish List (11/18/2009)
Gifts we wish we could afford
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