Published in Food/Agribusiness
Postema Christmas Tree Farm in Alto. Postema Christmas Tree Farm in Alto. COURTESY PHOTO

Demand surges for Michigan’s Christmas tree industry

BY Sunday, December 06, 2020 03:00pm

If patronage of local Christmas tree lots and farms is any indication, then Michigan residents are really in the holiday spirit this year.

Business has been booming for this segment of the agricultural industry in Michigan, which ranks third among Christmas tree producing states in the country behind Oregon and North Carolina.

Local u-cut farms, tree lots and wholesale farms, which sell a combined 2 million fresh trees annually, are quickly moving through their 2020 supply, which many industry insiders attribute to the COVID-19 pandemic keeping many families cooped up in their homes for the better part of the year. Tree shopping, meanwhile, provides an opportunity for safe outdoor fun.

Banner year

Brandon Postema, who works at family-owned Postema Christmas Tree Farm in Alto, had droves of tree buyers visit during the farm’s first weekend of the season, which came right after the Thanksgiving holiday.

The 35-acre farm has trees planted on 15-20 acres of its property. In addition to the Christmas trees that the farm grows, it also orders around 400 additional trees from Needlefast Evergreens Inc., a Ludington-based farm.

After the first weekend of sales, Postema said the farm had just 35 trees remaining and was all but sure to sell out long before the season ends. In the initial weekend of sales in 2020, Postema Christmas Tree Farm had more business than it did all of last year, he said. 

Complicating matters, the farm lacks options for procuring additional trees.

“There aren’t any more trees available,” said Postema, whose parents own the farm that opens only on weekends between Thanksgiving and Christmas. “We are locked in in terms of what we can buy for the year based on the previous year’s order. So even if your business wants to grow, it’s really super hard to find more trees.”

Postema said that the overwhelming surge in sales is certainly good for the farm as a business, but it can negatively affect some of the farm’s long-time clients that might strike out on finding a tree later into the season.

“We’ve had a solid group of customers that have returned with us for the past 10 years and it’s hard to tell them (inventory is already low),” Postema said. “We have a whole other group of customers we still expect to see this coming weekend and we barely have trees to sell them.”

A pandemic release

Like most industry members, Postema attributed some of the increased interest in Christmas trees to the cabin fever brought on by COVID-19. Over the spring and summer, the pandemic had a similar effect on patronage at pumpkin patches, orchards and u-pick farms.

While COVID-19 may have played a role in driving more people to the farm, Postema said his family also took safety precautions to meet health guidelines and protect both staff and customers.

“Operationally, we’re about the same because we’re all outside,” Postema said. “Really, all we did to be different this year is … we closed down the cabin and are giving hot chocolate and candy canes at the end to reduce touch points.”

“Busy” is also how Derrick Vormittag of Grand Rapids-based Vormittag Tree Farm described the early portion of his company’s season.

Vormittag, who is a math teacher by day, works on the 63-acre farm owned by his father. Currently, the farm has trees growing on 20-25 acres.

Vormittag Tree Farm was a hobby farm until 12 years ago when his father quit his job as a tool and die technician during the recession and made the farm his full-time venture.

Because the farm continues to grow each year, Vormittag expected that it would be busier this year compared to last, but he now anticipates that the farm will sell out of trees — or come close — because of the surge in demand.

“A lot of tree lots are not open this year. … Some didn’t want to invest in buying the trees and not be able to sell them,” said Vormittag, whose farm only sells trees directly to customers. “The people that would go to those lots are going to the farms. Thanksgiving travel is also down 50 percent, which means 50 percent of the people that would have been traveling are home or in the vicinity of home and they are looking for things to do.”

Whether this season is an outlier or the industry will be able to sustain the momentum, farms say they have difficulty reacting. Christmas trees take eight to 10 years to grow to a proper size, requiring impeccable foresight from producers to meet demand.

“I’m a math teacher so I have numbers in my background,” Vormittag said. “You’re always looking at current trends, emerging markets and what trees people are interested in. In the big scheme of things, your location can only grow certain trees to the best of their ability. 

“You have to know your property and you have to dabble in what the markets are looking for and see what you can do.”

Sustaining momentum

According to the National Christmas Tree Association, U.S. tree farms are growing close to 350 million Christmas trees on about 350,000 acres. Typically, those farms sell an average of 25 million-30 million Christmas trees every year. Michigan’s 2 million trees contribute $30 million to $40 million to the national market each year.

Nationally, a majority of trees are purchased from u-cut farms (32 percent), large chain stores (24 percent) and independent retail lots (17 percent).

According to Amy Start, executive director of the Michigan Christmas Tree Association, the state is a favorable area for growing trees because of its climate, topography and soil.

Start said industry members also are hoping to find ways to sustain the momentum brought on by this banner season.

“If a consumer is new to having a real tree and they (bought a real tree) this year because they could get out with the kids, they might find it was such a great experience that they want to do it again,” she said. “That’s what we’re hoping, for the new people that have never had this experience to be like, ‘Wow, this is really cool.’”

Since 2008, the nation has experienced a mild shortage in Christmas trees, but supply hasn’t always been low, Start added. 

“It’s a cyclical business and in the past we’ve had an overabundance of trees, so it’s great (tree farms) are having this time where they’re able to sell out, and sell out early so they can enjoy a little Christmas, too,” Start said.

While business might be booming for now, growers say they also face their share of risks.

“There are a lot of factors — a farmer can lose half their crop like they did a few years ago to a drought,” Vormittag said. “At that point, you can be four, five years into something and watch it die. It can be lucrative and it can be devastating. There is a risk and there is a reward.”

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