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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, December 7, 2003

Christmas tree farms going strong

By Barbara Powell
Associated Press

JACKSON, Miss. — All farmers watch the weather, but for Christmas tree farmers, the weather vigil is intensified because their selling season is squeezed between Thanksgiving and December 25.

"We just have this small window of opportunity," said Debra Marolt, a teacher and owner with her husband, Mike, of the 5-acre Pine Mountain Tree Farm in Corinth. "If the weather is bad and people get ready to put up their trees, they'll pull into Marvin's or Lowe's or Wal-Mart and just throw one in the trunk."

The good news for tree farmers who sell direct to consumers is that the economy has strengthened in recent months. Unemployment is down in Mississippi and nationally, and retail industry analysts say shoppers are more in the mood to spend money this year than last.

"I think the economy is better and I think people will come out and buy," said Mike Marolt, who hopes to sell 300 to 350 of his Leyland cypress, Carolina Sapphire and Scotch pine trees this holiday season, about the same as last year.

More good news for tree farmers: Industry overcrowding combined with competition from chain stores selling both real and artificial trees has thinned the ranks of farmers, giving those still standing some growing room. In Mississippi and Louisiana, the number of tree growers declined from a peak of about 600 in the mid-1980s to about 80 today.

"Our business is getting better because so many people are finding it's hard work," said Ben Moseley, owner with his wife, Jane, of two 45-acre tree farms in Florence where more than 3,000 trees are tagged for sale this season. "Our main competition is Wal-Mart."

More critical to tree farmers than competition from Wal-Mart — chain stores sold 21 percent of all Christmas trees last year — is the fact that, increasingly, people choose fake trees over the real thing.

In 1990, of the 70 million trees sold, about half were real trees. By 2002, 70 percent of the 80 million trees sold were artificial, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.

"They're making them nicer now, and they even have them decorated," said Al Acosta, who says the popularity of artificial Christmas trees is hurting business at his 30-acre Childrens Christmas Tree Forest in Carriere in Pearl River County.

But Christmas tree farms are increasingly Americans' top choice as the place to buy a tree. In 2002, 35 percent of real trees were bought at tree farms, compared to 19 percent in 1996.

Tree farmers increase their chances of making a sale by offering things that stores can't.

At the Marolt farm in northeast Mississippi, the five acres are shared with horses, geese and ducks, a fish-stocked pond and a flock of turkeys that frequently wander over from a neighbor's land.

Acosta's tree farm in south Mississippi has a pumpkin patch, fish pond, hayrides and free Easter Egg hunts for the children of those who buy a Christmas tree.

"We say we're selling memories," said Moseley, whose central Mississippi property offers sleigh rides and farm tours and has a gift shop and petting zoo.

"The kids on the tours, they say they didn't know trees grew. They thought you got them at Wal-Mart," he said.