Starting a Christmas Tree Business

A Christmas tree farmer offers his advice on joining the business, including tips on species selection, buying and planting seedlings, pruning, and selling your trees.


| November/December 1990


In April of 1959, when I bought my first 1,000 white spruce seedlings from the New York State Conservation Department for $7.50 and planted them on roughly two acres of my parents' small, rocky farm in upstate New York, I thought I was planting trees simply for the inherent good of doing so—providing wildlife habitat, preventing soil erosion, assisting God with reforestation. So innocent was my upbringing in Hurleyville, New York, that I had no notion there was such a thing as the Christmas tree business. For in our town, whoever wanted a Christmas tree simply wandered into the woods and cut one. In those days little private land was posted against trespassing. And neither landowners nor tree-cutting Christians ever dreamed of offering or accepting cash money for one of the slim, six-foot balsam firs or white pines that grew in abundance on the fringes of every marsh.

But a mere decade after my first planting (I subsequently put in another 5,000 spruces, firs and Scotch pines), my 1959 trees had grown to five and seven and even nine feet tall and were starting to shade and crowd one another. My plantation needed thinning. Coincidentally—since by then I had moved into New York City to take a job—I discovered that late each November, hundreds of Christmas tree merchants descended upon the city bearing thousands of evergreens, parking their tractor-trailers along Broadway and bribing the appropriate police precinct, all to street-peddle six-foot Christmas trees to bustling and eager New Yorkers: Trees just like mine, selling for $10 to $15 apiece! I realized I was sitting atop a gold mine.

Nevertheless, totally lacking in merchant's genes, my first marketing pitch amounted only to a timid mention at an office coffee break that I was driving up to my parents' to cut my own Christmas tree. Would anyone else "like one"? I did not dare even mention money. But one gracious soul took the bait. Toni Gerber, a bright and attractive, newly hired editorial assistant, announced she would very much like one of my Scotch pines, although likely something small and tabletop since she was just setting up her own apartment and could not afford to pay more than $10. So grateful was I to have my first paying customer—my only customer in 1969—that I cut a giant, eight-foot tree and sold it to Ms. Gerber for a mere $3.

Not only that, I married her. Which, like most of my adventures in the Christmas tree trade, turned out to be a romantic success but an economic blunder, since I could no longer charge her for a tree.

But from that beginning my marketing skills improved dramatically, and so did my Christmas tree sales, mostly by word of mouth. Savvy New Yorkers were eager to buy my guaranteed-fresh evergreens, off the stump only a day or two, rather than buy from the large-scale street peddlers, many of whose trees are cut three weeks or more before being hauled into the city. Throughout the 1970s my sales more or less doubled every year up to the point where I simply had more customers than trees I wanted to sell.

So potentially lucrative is the Christmas tree business that other high-profit rural enterprises—raising chinchillas, for example, or selling mail-order shoes—pale by comparison. Consider that, using the standard evergreen planting configuration (placing seedlings six feet apart in every direction), roughly 1,100 trees can be grown on a single acre of good ground for a crop worth, at today's retail prices, somewhere in the vicinity of $45,000!

kathyk
9/29/2017 11:29:01 AM

For the past 30-something years, I've dreamed of having a Christmas tree farm. After reading your article, I'm thinking it sounds more do-able. A garden center with 12 acres has gone up for sale in the next town, and I keep thinking I could retire now and have that tree farm. The problem is, I'd have to pay for the garden center lot (and building), but not have any tree income for about 10 years. Any ideas on how to manage that? I wonder if in NJ, I can claim some kind of farm loss? Kathy K


kathyk
9/29/2017 11:27:54 AM

For the past 30-something years, I've dreamed of having a Christmas tree farm. After reading your article, I'm thinking it sounds more do-able. A garden center with 12 acres has gone up for sale in the next town, and I keep thinking I could retire now and have that tree farm. The problem is, I'd have to pay for the garden center lot (and building), but not have any tree income for about 10 years. Any ideas on how to manage that? I wonder if in NJ, I can claim some kind of farm loss? Kathy K


blondelouie
9/29/2017 11:27:53 AM

For the past 30-something years, I've dreamed of having a Christmas tree farm. After reading your article, I'm thinking it sounds more do-able. A garden center with 12 acres has gone up for sale in the next town, and I keep thinking I could retire now and have that tree farm. The problem is, I'd have to pay for the garden center lot (and building), but not have any tree income for about 10 years. Any ideas on how to manage that? I wonder if in NJ, I can claim some kind of farm loss? Kathy K






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