'Tis the season that New Jersey's Christmas tree farmers love, and while their ranks may have declined, their sales this year are up.
New Jersey had 690 farms that sold Christmas trees in 2012, according to the most recentreleased earlier this year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. There were more than 4,600 acres of pine, fir, spruce and cedar, with 68,471 trees cut.
Those numbers have dropped compared to the previous decade. There were 27 percent fewer acres in production in 2012 than in 2007 and 40 percent fewer acres than in 2002. The number of trees harvested two years ago was about half as many as in 2002, when more than 132,000 trees were cut, and the total was 13 percent less than in 2007. The number of tree farms was 25 percent lower in 2012 compared to 2002 and 22 percent lower than in 2007.
Lynne Richmond, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Agriculture, noted that the number of farms of all types – not just Christmas tree farms -- has been declining both in New Jersey and nationally. But the growers who remain are doing well.
"Christmas trees are very profitable," she said.
The ag census data shows the amount of sales of Christmas trees and other short-term woody crops has been declining, as well: the $1.8 million in sales in 2012 was 30 percent less than the $2.6 million in sales in 2007 and less than half the $3.9 million in sales a decade earlier.
However, Christmas trees represent less than 1 percent of total farm sales. And anecdotal evidence points to a reversal of the trend toward declining sales.
"These growers are reporting very brisk sales this season," said Peter Furey, executive director of the. "I'm sure they are feeling quite bullish about the future."
"I have not talked to one person who said their sales are down from last year," agreed Chris Nicholson, president of the state’s Christmas Tree Growers Association.
Nationally, Americans bought 33 million farm-grown trees last year, the largest number since at least 2007, according to the National Christmas Tree Association, the trade group representing the industry. Yet the mean average spent per tree, $35.30, was the second lowest during that time period -- the high average price for a farm-grown tree was $41.30 in 2012. Last year's total of $1.16 billion in sales was higher than the prior year, but just below the high of $1.2 billion in 2007.
New Jersey's tree farms are relatively small -- 86 percent of the trees sold in 2012 were from farms with fewer than 50 acres in production, and a majority of farms had fewer than 3 acres devoted to Christmas trees. That means nearly all of the state's farms sell directly to consumers, rather than to retailers, Nicholson said.
What kind of a season tree farms have can depend heavily be heavily on a number of factors, including the weather, retailers offering trees and the number of days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, according to the National Christmas Tree Association, the trade group representing the industry.
And, unlike nearly all other crops, a field of trees cannot be replaced every year. Nicholson said the average farmer plants seedlings that are between four and five years old, and no more than 2 feet tall. He then tends to the trees and the grounds for between five and eight years, on average, before the trees are cut and sold.
"It's a tough business, it takes a lot of planning, but it's a labor of love," said Nicholson, owner of the 30-acrein Mendham Township. "Small farmers like myself are able to survive by offering more than just Christmas trees."
Agritourism is a big part of what keeps the choose-and-cut farms operating. At Hidden Pond, there's a free hayride, hot chocolate, and bonfires with marshmallows.
"The actual tree is only about 25 percent of the experience," Nicholson said. "It's about getting the kids in the car and taking the family to the farm to spend the day together. And when you go to the farm, you are supporting your New Jersey farmer, you are supporting local agriculture."
Nicholas added that he and many other small farmers also sell wreaths, roping and firewood, "anything you can do related to Christmas helps because it is such a short season."
New Jersey ranked 18th nationwide in the ag census for the total number of trees harvested, contributing less than 1 percent of the 17.3 million trees cut nationwide in 2012. Oregon was the largest Christmas tree producer, with 6.4 million harvested -- more than a third of the country's total. More than a million trees were cut in North Carolina, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Warren County led New Jersey, with close to 12,000 trees harvested. Essex and Hudson counties were the only counties with no Christmas tree growers.
Attesting to the small size of the state's farms, New Jersey had the sixth-largest number of tree farms with sales. The state ranked 14th in acreage devoted to Christmas trees.