December 9, 2013 8:39:46 AM
JACKSON -- First Lady Deborah Bryant has chosen a 12-foot Leyland cypress donated by the Lazy Acres farm in Chunky for this year's Christmas tree at the Governor's Mansion. It is the tallest tree ever selected for the Mansion, and growers are hopeful that is a good omen that sales will be solid in 2013.
Christmas tree growers are still humming about last year's sale. In 2012, sales were up 15 percent over 2011 after earlier forecasts put sales growth at nearer 11 percent. Steve Dicke, a professor with Mississippi State University Extension Service, is forecasting a 7 percent increase over 2012 volume.
He also is issuing a warning -- sales were so good last year that consumers better buy early if they want that special tree.
"The inventory of Christmas trees will be tight because sales last year were so good that producers had to sell part of this year's crop," Dicke said in a statement. "The best-looking trees are going to go faster than usual, so waiting to purchase a Christmas tree until the last minute is not recommended."
Supply and demand are big challenges for growers. It takes four years to grow out the average Christmas tree, and producers continue to struggle to meet consumer demand.
Meeting that demand has been especially tough over the last few years due to severe weather. In 2010, drought that gripped the entire state from August through October dealt a blow to young Christmas trees.
Last year, the Christmas tree industry in the state took a hit from Hurricane Isaac when it made landfall on Aug. 28, leaving trees uprooted and increasing the cercospora needle blight fungus. Producers worked overtime to get trees ready for the upcoming season, though the damage he was relatively minimal.
Weather this year has been great, but growers are still looking to get more trees to the marketplace.
"Producers are trying to shorten rotations and plant more trees, but it's going to take a while to catch up to the demand because of growth time," Dicke said. "Christmas tree sales aren't hurt by the economy because even when people stay home, they are going to buy a tree."
Bob Shearer of Purvis produces Christmas trees on 2.5 acres in Lamar County, and his Leighton Green Cypress tree won grand champion for the three-state Southern Christmas Tree Association in 2013. Shearer said the weather cooperated to help this year's tree crop succeed, which is crucial because the increase in demand makes every tree count.
"We had adequate rain when we needed it, but we had enough time between rainfall for fungicide applications to make sure we got disease-free trees," Shearer said. "It has really been one of our best years in regards to weather."
Shearer said the Christmas spirit can be hard to find while working on the trees year-round, especially in summer heat. He said the hard work pays off, though, when he sees the impact his trees have on others' Christmas season.
"What makes it worthwhile is when we have groups of children with special needs from local schools come out and choose a tree for their classroom," he said. "Some of them are in wheelchairs or on crutches and some have mental disabilities, and it tugs at my heartstrings because I can tell they are going to face a lot of challenges in life. But they light up like it's Christmas day when they see the Christmas trees, and that's kind of the high point of my whole season."
Christmas tree farm tree prices vary based on the size of the tree, but expect to pay between $5 and $8 per foot, according to release from the Mississippi State University Extension Service.
"The average customer is looking for a seven-foot tall tree that is five to six feet wide, but not everyone is average," Dicke said. "Therefore, most Christmas tree producers provide both larger and smaller trees, ranging from five to 10 feet tall, to fit the needs of the customer."