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Growing money on trees.

Growing Money On Trees

You can get one tall enough to scrape the ceiling or small enough to sit on a table, one that is perfectly shaped or one with the natural look. Whatever the choice, Christmas trees definitely are big business in Arkansas and bring their growers more than a million dollars a year in net profit.

A Christmas tree farmer - there are at least 150 of them in Arkansas - must wait four years before harvesting his first crop and realizing a profit. After that, however, it is a lucrative business.

Walter Kirchoff, owner of Santa's Little Forest near Altheimer (Jefferson County), estimates that net profit per tree is about $4. By planting trees in eight-foot rows six feet apart, a farmer can get 1,000 trees per acre. Only a fourth of the trees are harvested in any one year, giving an estimated profit of $1,000 per acre. Some acreages will sustain more trees.

"You can't make $1,000 an acre a year out of soybeans or rice," says Kirchoff.

There is a steady turnover of people in Christmas tree farming as the promise of good profits encourages new people to try the business. Hard work and high risk, however, cause others to drop out.

"Four out of five people who get into the business get out before they sell their first tree," says Billy Joe McGill of Turrell (Crittenden County), incoming president of the Arkansas Christmas Tree Growers Association.

Improved Marketing

The purpose of the ACTGA is to encourage people to buy live trees by offering them top-quality merchandise. The association also publishes a monthly newsletter and, twice a year, holds workshops on ways to improve quality.

The ACTGA was formed a decade ago by tree growers interested in improving their ability to compete with sellers of northern trees, according to McGill.

The farms of ACTGA members average eight acres, with 1,000 trees per acre. A few, such as Tom Hasty's Golden Acres Farm near Almyra (Arkansas County), are considerably larger. Hasty grows approximately 27,000 trees on his 32 acres.

Ninety percent of the Christmas trees grown in Arkansas are Virginia Pines because they grow rapidly and withstand the southern climate. However, some ACTGA members are experimenting with other species of trees, among them White and Scotch Pines and Spruce. The Scotch Pine will grow in Arkansas, but it takes longer to reach harvestable size - six to seven years, compared to four for the Virginia Pine. The normal varieties of White Pine and Spruce do not like a warm climate, but research may come up with varieties that do.

Much of the work of caring for and harvesting the trees - trimming for example - must be done manually and on an individual basis. Hasty has four trimming machines to keep his trees in shape. It takes four crews eight days twice a year to trim all the trees at Golden Hills. This year, Hasty has let some of his older, larger trees "go natural" at customer request. He says the idea suits him since it saves on labor.

Trees must be individually tagged for dying and cutting each year. Trees have to be dragged out of the rows by hand for wrapping by the netting machine in preparation for hauling.

The hazards of Christmas tree farming are obvious, such as fire and freezing rain, which "could devastate a whole plantation in a matter of hours," says Hasty. The less obvious include such things as plant and animal pests, drainage and competition.

"Our number one enemy is the Nantucket Tip Moth," says McGill.

Timing is all important in controlling this pest which can do its damage in a matter of hours. Trees must be sprayed to kill the moths before they lay their eggs. If the eggs are laid, the larvae hatch immediately and burrow into the tips of the needles where they can't be reached. The result is that the outside of the entire tree turns brown.

Alternative Crop

Hasty grows his trees on land that is unsuitable for rice and soybeans. After the seedlings are two years old, they reach down into the ground for water so that irrigation is unnecessary.

Competition - both from northern-grown trees and with each other - can be both a benefit and a drawback. A few years ago, Hasty said, the poor quality of the trees being grown in Arkansas caused a loss of business to northern competition. Now, however, competition is aiding the ACTGA's campaign for top-quality trees and new markets.

"Over a million trees a year are grown in Arkansas now," says McGill. "Sooner or later we'll saturate the market."

As a result, growers are beginning to reach outside the state for new customers. Hasty said he has offered to bring wholesale buyers from Memphis to look at his farm so that they can see for themselves the quality of his trees.

Currently, more than half the growers in Arkansas are "choose and cut" only. That is, they sell to individuals or families who come to the farm to choose their trees. Those who are in the wholesale business sell to grocery chains, civic clubs and individual tree lots throughout the state. Most do their own hauling.

One of the advantages of Christmas tree farming, besides the money, is the fun, according to Hasty, who says he enjoys having "about 100 kids yelling and screaming and running around the farm" on the Saturdays before Christmas.

PHOTO : IN THE GREEN: Richard and Naylene Smith get their cut of the lucrative Christmas tree market selling trees at this lot at 3519 Old Cantrell Road.
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Title Annotation:Arkansas' seasonal Christmas tree business
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Dec 17, 1990
Words:934
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