Tomi Whitaker cuts greens for wreaths and garlands on Wednesday at Twin H Tree Farms. Staff photo by Rich Janzaruk
Tomi Whitaker cuts greens for wreaths and garlands on Wednesday at Twin H Tree Farms. Staff photo by Rich Janzaruk
Jean Hopwood started a Christmas tree farm 40 years ago just south of Bloomington. The 200-acre Twin H Tree Farms will open for the season today, but its future is uncertain.

“I had a transition plan, but it fell through,” she said. “I’m starting again on another one.”

Hopwood’s situation is representative of Christmas tree farmers in Indiana.

A multi-phase research study from the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University found the average age of Christmas tree farmers in the state is 64. And a lot of them don’t have a succession plan, said James Farmer, an associate professor at the O’Neill School who led the study. In addition, nearly 30% of Indiana Christmas tree farmers surveyed for the study said they will consider not planting in the next five years.

The difficulty of finding someone to take over locally owned businesses is one reason why the number of Indiana Christmas tree farms is expected to continue declining, despite steady demand.

Over the past five years, the number of Christmas trees that were cut and sold in the U.S. has fluctuated, but the annual average is about 27 million, according the National Christmas Tree Association figures.

“It’s a pretty stable line,” Farmer said.

From 2002 to 2017, the number of farms in Indiana where Christmas trees were cut declined 42.6%, according to federal data Farmer said he pulled for the study. A lot of that decline can be attributed to the aging farm population.

Running a Christmas tree farm is hard work, and it seems younger generations are opting for easier ways to eke out a living. That’s what happened with Hopwood. Her son started working on the farm when he was 10 years old, but didn’t want anything to do with it as an adult, she said.

Fortunately for the customers of Dull’s Tree Farm in Thorntown, Indiana, Tom Dull’s son and daughter-in-law have decided to carry on the family business. But Dull understands why his situation is atypical.

Most people only see tree farms during harvest time. When that’s over, Dull said he has to grind down stumps to keep his fields clean and minimize the places where pests can establish themselves.

Planting season usually starts in late March or early April. For years, this was done by hand. Dull has a machine now, but someone still has to walk behind it and stomp in every tree, he said.

Shearing begins in the summer. Trees don’t grow in a neat cone shape on their own. To make them match the visions of customers, people have to trim the trees with machetes. The process isn’t easily mechanized.

“It’s a lot of hand labor,” Dull said. “When you’ve got 40,000 to 50,000 trees, that’s a big job.”

The farm grounds need to be mowed and maintained as well, so people feel comfortable when they come to pick out a tree. Cutting and selling is the fun part of the business, Dull said. It’s also when tree farmers make their money.

“You work all year and don’t get paid until the end,” he said. “Some people don’t like that. They want a check every two weeks.”

Trees don’t always turn a profit, either. Farmer said he got a call over the summer from a crop insurance company asking him to help determine the value of young saplings. Flooding earlier in the year had killed large swaths of trees between 1 and 3 years of age.

A lack of rain can also be detrimental. Farmers surveyed for the study said the drought of 2012 resulted in a 100% mortality rate for new plantings that year.

“Nothing survived,” Farmer said.

Extreme weather events are not new, but tree farmers participating in the study said environmental conditions are becoming more challenging. With warmer winters and hotter summers, trees are less resilient, Farmer said.

That’s certainly been Hopwood’s experience. Diplodia fungus has wiped out Scotch pines, once a popular tree in this area, she said. Needle fungus has been killing white and blue spruces. White pine weevils have killed the tops of white pine trees.

“It’s harder and harder for us to grow conifers here,” Hopwood said. “The winters aren’t cold enough, so you have fungus and bugs in the trees.”

Customer preferences have also changed, creating both challenges and benefits.

About 1,500 Indiana residents were surveyed for Farmer’s study. When asked about the type of Christmas trees they prefer, short-needle varieties, such as firs and spruces, were the most popular. But those species don’t grow well in Indiana. White pines are easier to grow in this area, but those were the least popular.

To meet customer demand, Christmas tree sellers in Indiana started buying from wholesalers. That still happens, but there aren’t as many wholesalers as there used to be, Dull said.

The former president of the National Christmas Tree Association said most people don’t know how Christmas tree sales at big box stores work. Those stores allow wholesalers to put trees in their stores on a pay-by-scan basis. That means the farm is not paid for a tree until it goes past the cash register. If 100 trees are placed in a store and only 60 are sold, the farm eats the difference.

“It’s difficult to keep your head above water in a situation like that,” Dull said.

This has given farms like Dull’s a leg up. Customers can watch wreaths being made in a barn while eating an apple cider doughnut made that day on the farm. If they’re still hungry, there’s a food service area where they can get a full meal, hot chocolate or a frozen apple cider slushie. There’s a petting zoo and slides for kids. A horse-drawn carriage offers rides around a pond. And of course, there are Christmas trees that can be cut and taken home to decorate.

“We don’t sell Christmas trees,” Dull said, “we sell the experience.”

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