published Friday, December 10th, 2010

Christmas tree farms stand tall as recession crimps consumers


by Brittany Cofer
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    Staff Photo by Tim Barber/Chattanooga Times Free Press Alvin Kittle, 77, stops to look at one of his Christmas trees on the eight-acre farm site in Ringgold, Ga. "My best weekend for sales is near the 10th of the month," he said. He began his Kittle's Christmas Trees business in 1978.

Local Christmas tree farmers are counting on the holiday spirit to outshine the tendency for consumers to hold onto their money through tough economic times.

In a state with unpredictable weather that makes growing conditions fluctuate from year to year, many of the farmers who struggle to keep their trees viable aren't having problems getting them off their lots this season, said Art Landrigan, president of the Tennessee Christmas Tree Growers Association.

"Sales are good from everything that I've heard from folks so far," he said. "The wholesale business for wholesale growers is up this year, and retail growers, I haven't talked to all of them, but sales have been good -- they've been brisk."

He said the economic downturn seems to have affected the size tree people buy, opting for smaller 8-foot-tall trees instead of larger ones, but that hasn't noticeably affected sales. With family members looking for cheap activities that can be done together, he said shopping for a Christmas tree at a local farm is a reasonable option.

"More people are probably buying from Christmas tree farms than they used to because they're finally realizing the need to get something back in the family side," he said. "You're not buying a Christmas tree, you're buying a Christmas experience."

"not participating in recession"

That's one of the lessons Alvin Kittle learned during his first year as a Christmas tree farmer in 1978. When he began planting the trees on his Ringgold, Ga., farm, he didn't have much else to offer his customers.

"When I started, a boy came up to me and said, 'Mister, this is supposed to be a farm, where are all the animals?'" he said. "Now I have llamas and sheep and things for the kids to enjoy."

But even without the experience of personally cutting down a tree at a farm, there are still opportunities for increased sales, said Myra Montanero, co-owner of Tom Sawyer's Christmas Tree Farm and Elf Village in Lake Glenville, N.C., which has sold its Fraser fir trees at lots around Chattanooga for the past three years. She said so far this year the average sale is higher than last year, and as Christmas gets closer she anticipates sales to continue to pick up.

"It really is looking good," she said. "We decided not to participate in the recession. We heard there was one, but we are trying to charge on."

Not all farmers are having the same success, though.

rural site's thin crowds

At Little Mountain Tree Farm in Pikeville, Tenn., sales have taken a nosedive on both fronts since the economy tanked.

"Where we used to wholesale trees by the thousands, now it's just a few hundred," said the farm's owner, Anthony Bickford. "On the weekends, we'd have cars that'd be parked all up and down the road, several hundred on the weekend, but now it's just 25 or 30 people. It's about put us out of business."

Landrigan said on the whole, growers in Tennessee haven't been affected by the downturn and even with a tough growing season this year due to the extreme hot temperatures, he expects sales to be good.

"Our crop is not an annual crop; it takes anywhere from six to 12 to 14 years to grow," Landrigan said. "When you have a year that's bad on what you planted, you make up for it the next two years by planting more."

Contact staff writer Brittany Cofer at bcofer@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/brittanycofer.

about Brittany Cofer...

Brittany Cofer is a business reporter who has been with the Chattanooga Times Free Press since January 2010. She previously worked as a general assignment Metro reporter. In the Business department, she covers banking, retail, tourism, consumer issues and green issues. Brittany is from Conyers, Ga., and spent two years at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Ga., before transferring to the University of Georgia. She graduated from the university’s Grady College of Journalism in December ...

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