Christmas tree growers dwindling in Montana
By Susan Gallagher
HELENA, Mont. The Christmas tree harvest at the Hardy Plantation near Creston is over for the season, and Janet Hardy figures there won't be many more.
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"It's a lot of work in a small amount of time. It's cold, it's exhausting," she said. "It's not that lucrative."
This year, the Hardys cut 1,200 trees and got $8 to $9 a tree about $10,000.
If there was a heyday for the state's Christmas tree industry, it was when people wanted their living rooms decked out with Scotch pines, which grow nicely in the state, the Montana Christmas Tree Association says. But now the demand is for softer, fragrant firs, which are less likely to grow well in the state.
"There are true firs that we can grow, but it's kind of limited," said Dave Leeman of Eureka, secretary for the association, which has seen membership dwindle to eight from a high of 55 a decade ago. "They're growing them by Heron and Noxon, and the demand is huge.
"People still want a heavy, bushy tree, but they want it to have tips rather than a real rounded shape."
Industry numbers are hard to find.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's most recent Christmas tree survey was in 1997 and found Montana with 74 farms, about as many as in Arkansas and Rhode Island. The nation's leading grower, Oregon which supplies many of Hawai'i's Christmas trees had 1,626 farms. Wyoming placed last, with two.
Leeman said he doesn't know for sure how many growers remain in Montana. He guessed about 30 operate tree plantations and another 50 people cut wild trees for retail.
"It's an industry that had a lot of hope in one species (Scotch pine), and that kind of faded," said Bob Logan of the Montana State University Extension Service. He studied the Christmas tree business a few years ago, but knows of no one who tracks its annual statistics.
Ray and Tressa Brandewie of Bigfork, in the business since 1971, augment their Christmas tree operation with enterprises that include barbecue sauce. They pulled out of Scotch pine and now raise firs on about 30 acres.
"It's taken care of us over the years," Tressa Brandewie said. But added continuing drought has been a hardship and an irrigation system is planned next year.
Ted Murray of Boulder said nearly all the trees he sells at his lots in Great Falls and Helena each year come from northwestern Montana. He buys 800 to 1,000 trees from commercial growers and cuts about as many wild ones, usually on private land where owners want their trees thinned.
"As a general rule, if you don't get a tree grown in Montana, it hasn't frozen," Murray said. An imported tree that freezes once it gets here is likely to lose needles, he said.
That apparently isn't a problem for Cornerstone Academy, a private Helena school that sells Oregon trees as a yearly fund-raiser and will charge $65 this season for Noble firs standing 7 to 8 feet.
"We have repeat customers who will pay that because the trees are so nice," school secretary Jodi Therriault said.
In Montana, the northwestern area of the state is the heart of the business. From there, trees often travel a long way.
Some of the Hardy Plantation's trees go to Colorado. Leeman, in the business for 22 years, sells to retailers in Utah and Wyoming as well as Montana, and even ships some trees to Oklahoma.