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Md. tree growers, retailers optimistic about the season

If last year’s trend continues, Maryland’s tree sellers could see another green Christmas.

Inna Ruslanova of Cockeysville helps Valley View Farms nursery worker Willie Hall place the live Norway Spruce that she bought into the back of her SUV. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

In 2012, local sales seemingly bucked a national decline, thanks to good weather and a spruced-up, state-sponsored marketing campaign encouraging consumers to “Buy Real.”

It’s too early to tell what this year’s holiday season will bring, said Cindy Stacy, publicist for the Maryland Christmas Tree Association and co-owner of Pinetum Christmas Trees in Swanton in Garrett County. But she’s optimistic, given Pinetum’s success thus far — a wholesaler, the farm is already done harvesting and shipping its 493 trees for the year.

“We were delighted with our harvest,” said Stacy. Last year, the farm lost 70 percent of the trees it was scheduled to ship because of Superstorm Sandy, but it was able to get its lost customers back this year.

Nationally, households bought 24.5 million farm-grown trees in 2012, according to the National Christmas Tree Association, a decrease from 30.8 million the year before.

The Northeast quarter of the U.S. saw the greatest impact, said Rick Dungey, public relations manager for the National Christmas Tree Association — possibly because of Sandy, which hit in October 2012. In that region, 22 percent of households had a real tree, compared with a 10-year average of 30 percent.

But the 2012 season was generally a good one for Maryland tree farmers, said Lisa Gaver, president of the Maryland Christmas Tree Association, which surveys the state’s tree farms each year. Gaver could not disclose the complete results, but said that almost all of the association’s members reported an increase in sales last year.

“Last year was our best year ever,” said Ben Butler, assistant farm manager at Butler’s Orchard in Germantown.

The farm, which sells both pre-cut and choose-your-own trees, plants about 3,500 a year to maintain its Christmas supply. About a decade ago, it increased the number of trees planted, which were ready to sell last year.

Maryland Christmas Tree Association members, including Butler’s, attributed increased 2012 sales to a “picture-perfect season,” said Gaver, referring to the weather between Thanksgiving and Christmas. That’s an important factor, especially for outdoor sellers and choose-your-own farms, where the appeal is not just a natural tree, but the experience of picking it up.

“What they want is a fun family day at the farm,” said Dungey. “That’s always going to be a strong market segment.”

Maryland has the 24th-largest Christmas tree farming industry in the United States, according to the 2007 U.S. Census of Agriculture, the last tree count on record.

Alan Thomson, nursery manager for Valley View Farms, with live Norway spruce trees in the nursery area. The retailer says live trees typically run about $30 more than cut Christmas trees of the same size. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

But some of Maryland’s pre-cut trees come from other states.

Valley View Farms in Cockeysville, for example, gets most of its Fraser firs from North Carolina, where that species grows abundantly.

Sales have been steady at Valley View, said nursery manager Alan Thomson, with some increase in the past few years. He expects to sell about 1,400 cut trees this year, compared with about 1,200 three years ago, despite the shortened buying season from Thanksgiving to Christmas.

“If people are going to get a tree … I think they’ve already made their mind up prior to Thanksgiving,” said Thomson. “To some people, a plastic tree is just not real.”

Thomson’s numbers from last weekend beat the corresponding 2012 weekend. Gaver, too, said her Thanksgiving weekend was especially busy at Gaver Tree Farm in Mount Airy, which she and her husband own.

And the Maryland Christmas Tree Association has put an extra effort into promoting that idea. The organization received a $43,638 grant from the Maryland Department of Agriculture to fund its “Buy Local-Buy Real” marketing campaign from 2010 to 2012.

“A lot of folks I think from that just started plugging right in with their smartphones and kept hearing our ads,” said Stacy.

Because the Maryland organization has only 100 members, all of which are relatively small, this kind of marketing push was unprecedented, she said.

“It made people very much aware of where all the farms are,” said Stacy, “and they’re coming back.”