BY SUSAN BLOWER
FORTVILLE, Ind. — Brawners Greenhouse in Fortville lost 1,500 Christmas trees – mostly seedlings – this year to the heat and drought this summer. But it might have been worse.
Nearly 1,000 seedlings didn’t get planted because of the rainy spring and still sit in pots, looking like twigs with a few green needles. “If I had planted those, they would have died, too,” said co-owner Carlis Brawner, who has been in business for 33 years.
Their losses are consistent with other growers in the Midwest, said David Daniken, president of the Mid-America Christmas Tree Assoc. Brawner was able to water the potted seedlings and a few trees at a time with an irrigator. Those survived, while nearly all of the planted seedlings and many of the trees three years and younger didn’t.
Unfortunately, a field of Brawners’ 10- to 12-year-old firs turned reddish brown and died, too, as firs are not adept to the heat and the drastic change from a wet spring to a dry summer, said co-owner Gail Brawner.
Pines handle the Midwest climate better than firs or Colorado Blue Spruce, which were hit hard on his farm, said Bob Wendt, owner of Lost 40 Tree Farm in Greenfield, Ind. Fortunately, most mature tree varieties have not only survived the drought but benefitted from the wet fall, giving them great needle retention, he said.
“There is no tree shortage for this year,” Daniken said. “Few large trees have been hurt unless they were already under stress from insects or disease.”
Although this year’s crop will not be short, in eight years, when the seedlings would have matured, there will be shorter trees at a slightly higher price, Gail Brawner said. Tree farm owners are taking some of the financial hit this year as they replant either this fall or next spring.
“It’s a hit we’re going to pass onto the consumer in eight years,” she said.
Most tree farm owners interviewed by Farm World said they have invested $4-$5 per seedling and much more for older trees. That translates into an estimated $36,000 loss this year for Tom Dull, owner of Dull’s Tree Farm in Boone County, north of Indianapolis, Ind.
With no government program or affordable insurance, tree farms – already weakened by the poor economy – are especially vulnerable in bad-weather years, Wendt said.
He and many others, however, likely will not raise their prices this year.
“We haven’t raised our prices in five years. And with the severe economic downturn, now is not the time. When times are better, we’ll raise our prices and then it’ll be only about $5 per tree,” Wendt said.