YORKTOWN, Ind. —There is a reality that Millbrook Tree Farm must face – nature is indifferent to supply and demand, economic convenience, or even the holidays approaching.
Either way, Christmas trees only grow 10 inches a year.
This is a fact that has become all the more visible to owners Brent and Cara Reed following the erratic cultural and economic changes that have occurred under COVID-19.
Over the past two years, the Reeds say the pandemic has drawn hundreds of new customers to their winding gravel driveway who arrive at the 15-acre farm with the sometimes futile hope of sawing off natural evergreen foliage.
“For lack of better words, this season has been fast and furious,” said Brent. “No one would have guessed that we would have huge growth in business like this.”
The Reeds bought the farm from Brent’s aunt and uncle in 2014 and worked on the property for a decade before becoming the owner. At no point in their 17-year history at Millbrook has the demand for natural Christmas trees been so high.
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“I think part of that, especially when the pandemic started, is that people were looking to get out of confined spaces and do something that wasn’t restricted,” Brent said. “They were looking to enjoy an activity that reminded them of the way things were done before. ”
Brent said Millbrook sold his own cut trees in record time in 2020 and this year ran out of supplies on the first Saturday after Thanksgiving.
The Reeds made the unprecedented decision to close their cutting fields to customers on the night of December 4.
Similar circumstances have occurred at other Christmas tree farms across the country, with headlines often reporting a possible “Christmas tree shortage”.
One possible catalyst that farmers are proposing for the increased demand for natural Christmas trees is that pandemic closures have made it more likely that people would be home to water an 8-foot-tall potted plant.
But industry experts say that while supply chain issues have affected sales of pre-cut products on some forest farms, the pandemic is only a small part of the current “shortage”.
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In fact, the demand for natural Christmas trees, and subsequently the price of evergreen trees, has been on the rise since at least 2015, with shortages reported every year according to the National Christmas Tree Association.
“I think there has been a movement back to real trees that’s been happening forever,” Brent said. “COVID has kind of accelerated this movement. ”
The biggest culprit behind this year’s insufficient supply of trees occurred more than a decade ago from 2008 – the Great Recession.
Back then, the lagging economy prevented Christmas tree growers from making a profit, and those who managed to stay in the business planted fewer trees.
But the recession has only accelerated an annual trend. The number of open Christmas tree farms has declined every year since 2000. Between 2002 and 2017, the number of Christmas tree farms fell from 22,000 to less than 15,000 according to the US Department of Agriculture.
“In this industry, we’re always at least 10 years behind,” Brent said. “You’re always trying to stay one step ahead of the Eight Ball, but it’s hard to know where you’ll be in a decade.”
And this declining supply and the subsequent increase in demand has been further compounded by the environment.
“You can only tag a limited number of trees and keep the business going, we have to deal with Mother Nature,” Brent said. “If it gives us a drought or a wet spring or summer… if we lose 50 trees, it will take 10 years to catch up.”
The NTCA reported that earlier this year a severe drought wiped out tree plantations in Oregon, the nation’s leading supplier of Christmas trees – an “act of God” that is unlikely to be felt by local people. consumers before 2030.
Millbrook marked 1,300 trees this year and, before they closed to preserve the supply, more than 1,200 were felled.
The Reeds, who have absorbed clients from closed and neighboring local forest farms over the years, said they were fortunate enough to purchase an operation that was already viable.
“It would be difficult to convince someone to take over a business that won’t make a profit for 10 years… you have to have planned a decade of income just to get started,” Brent said. “What happens most of the time is when the arborists retire, no one is ready to take over that business. ”
To supplement their income, Brent works full time at the Methodist Hospital as a biomedical technician and Cara is a math professor at Pendleton Middle School.
“Yeah, it’s crazy, during peak season I get up at 4:30 am to work at my regular job and then I come right here and usually don’t come home until 6 or 7,” Brent said.
The four weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the Reeds worked 14 hours a day with the help of part-time family members and seasonal workers from Ball State.
“It’s chaotic here for a short window but, eight months a year, we come here and just exist with all these trees,” Brent said. “So most of the time chaos is in our usual jobs and this is where it is peaceful.”
While the profession of “Christmas tree grower” is expected to continue to decline over the next decade, the Reeds have no plans for retirement.
“Our core business is going to stay the same and we are still planting trees as if we were going to be in business for the next 20 years,” said Brent. “This job takes a little faith.”
Jordan Kartholl is a photojournalist at The Star Press. Contact him at 317-217-8681, [email protected] or on Instagram at @thestarpress.