Christmas tree farming a $700k business
Most growers raise trees as supplemental income, but even on small acreage there’s money to be made, Reed said. If you have the land and the equipment as many farmers already do, the initial cost of startup is substantially less than for those having to buy a tractor and implements. The only equipment needed is a small tractor for mowing, a boom-type spraying system and a mower. There’s no need for a large outlay for equipment. Many farmers already have a tractor, so there’s not much investment at all, according to Reed. The Virginia pine trees that were sold for many years had lots of loose needles, so growers needed a shaker to get rid of them, but the now-popular Leyland cypress doesn’t have that problem, Reed said.
"If a person wanted to get into it, I’m certain he can make some income at it," Reed said. "For some people who get into it large enough, certainly it’s a major income source."
Some people have gotten into the business thinking they can make lots of easy money only to find that there is some intense labor involved at certain times of the growing season, Reed said. "It takes a business plan to make it as a profitable grower."
The first thing you’d want to do is look at the market, and you don’t want to get in too big right away, Reed said. "You also need to realize that it takes about four years from the time the first trees are planted until you can see income."
"The initial cost for the cutting that’s planted is about $5, and in four years, if you have an 8-foot tree, it will sell for anywhere between $55 and $60," he said. "So you want to stagger your planting so you don’t cut all your trees in one year. You’ll need to plant a certain number of trees each year."
You need a well-drained soil because after the first growing season the trees become fairly drought-tolerant.
The trees need to be planted 7 or 8 feet apart with a10-foot spacing between the rows depending on the size of the equipment. "This should get you 400-500 trees per acre," Reed said.
As with any business, the amount of labor needed depends on how much you’re willing to do yourself, Reed said.
"Labor comes in with planting the trees initially. Then after the second year, the trees have to be sheared twice a year," he said.
The trees then have to be sprayed with a fungicide every four to six weeks from April through September. Other than that, it’s mainly weed control and mowing.
Reed said small growers sell around 500 trees per year, while the larger growers sell upwards of 1,000 trees.
"Actually, the Christmas tree business is pretty much recession-proof. Regardless of money being tight, it’s a holiday tradition. People always want to put up a tree," Reed said. "They may get a smaller tree, but they will put up a Christmas tree."
Reed said the "choose-and-cut" farms are probably the best business model. The Southern Christmas Tree Association comprises growers from Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
Most farms traditionally open the day after Thanksgiving and close as late as Christmas Eve. Many trees are tagged during the first week of sales, and people come later to pick them up.
Some of the larger growers will, in addition to their "choose-and-cut" operation, sell cut trees at retail.
"The Christmas tree business got started in the southeast in the late 1960s," Reed said. "At one time the association consisted of only Louisiana and Mississippi and between the two there were over 300 growers."
But over time both states lost growers, and Alabama was added to the association. There may be a total of 150 growers in those three states today, Reed said.
According to figures from the 2010 LSU AgCenter Ag Summary, 52 growers in Louisiana sold 14,034 trees with a gross farm value of just over $700,000.
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