Business Booming for Christmas Tree Farms Still Recovering From Drought

Dec 16, 2014

Judy Reifenberg is the co-owner of St. Joe Tree Farm in Fort Wayne.
Credit Virginia Alvino / WBOI News

By this time of the year, many households that put up a Christmas tree, already have, whether it be fresh cut or artificial. Most fresh trees are grown in Michigan and the Pacific Northwest, but plenty are grown right here in Indiana.

2014 was an interesting year for Hoosier tree farmers, who had a great growing season this summer, but are still recovering from a drought in 2012.

WBOI’s Virginia Alvino head out to the only two tree farms left in Allen County, to find out how this season’s going, and what the future may hold.

Finding the family Christmas tree. It can be an extensive process, but it’s also tradition for lots of folks - as eternalized by the classic holiday film National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

It’s not quite as rugged as all that in Northeast Indiana, but you can still head to the farm and find the perfect tree right here in Fort Wayne.

Business has been booming this year at St. Joe Christmas Tree Farm.

Judy Reifenberg has owned the 20 acre farm with her husband Mike for 16 years – and it’s quite a production. You pick the tree out in the fields, cut it yourself, it goes through the shaker, the bailer, they even have little train rides and hot cocoa on weekends.

Reifenberg says there’re a million reasons to want one of her trees. "OK, well one a fresh cut tree is American made. It’s buy local. Buy fresh.” 

And, a visit to St. Joe can be a pleasant experience in an otherwise stressful time of year.

“Everybody has their own struggles in life," says Reifenberg, "so hopefully we made a little bit of difference for somebody.”

She says they’ve seen a tremendous growth in demand, but that may be the result of more than a dozen farms in the county closing in the last five years.

Owners get too old for the manual labor, and new farms don’t open because they don’t want to wait until the trees are grown to see a profit.

Local supply may be down, but demand is also up, according to Dan Cassens, professor of wood products at Purdue, and co-owner of Cassens Trees in West Lafayette. 

“I see a return to the use of the real tree," says Cassens. "We’ve seen a lot of people this year that had never been out to cut their own tree before.”

He says modern consumers are also concerned about the environment, and real Christmas trees, like any other tree, pick up carbon dioxide in the air. They’re also good for wildlife, and control erosion.

“Artificial trees are a petroleum based product, and when you use fossilized fuels, you’re releasing fossilized carbon back into the atmosphere," says Cassens, "and that’s what the major issue is right now in terms of global warming.” 

The 2012 drought wiped out more than 400 mid-growth trees at Koontz Tree Farm in Fort Wayne.
Credit Virginia Alvino / WBOI News

  But Cassens says there’s a problem. A severe drought in 2012 killed 90 percent of Indiana’s seedling trees, and wiped out a lot of middle-growth trees.

St. Joe Tree Farm lost 4,000 seedlings. Judy Reifenberg says her business weathers the weather in part by shipping in trees from elsewhere to help meet demand.

“Everything goes into a cycle, so that’s why we plant a lot," says Reifenberg. "And because you have to make up for what’s gonna happen in the future. So we know that, and hopefully we’ll have really good weather again next year.”

The only other tree farm in Allen County that’s persevered is Koontz Farm – home to Judy and Jay Koontz.

They’ve been in the business a long time, and have some pretty loyal customers, like one that came in this month.

“I asked him if he’d been before," says Jay Koontz, "he’s like I’ve been coming here since I was a little kid, and now he’s bringing his kids here." I asked the couple how that made them feel, and in unison they replied "old," with a laugh. 

Business is great for them this year, too, but because they’re a smaller operation, they could get hit a lot harder by the drought crop.

“It’s gonna be about two years down the road or three where we hardly have anything to sell,” says Koontz. 

Jay walked me out back to see just how long these trees take to grow. He leans over one that’s not even as tall as me. He says “On these pines, every set of branches is a year. So see like, there’s 1, 2, 3, 4. See that tree’s eight years old.” 

Then, we hit a stretch of land, right in the middle of the field, that’s mostly barren.

“See like this patch here was like this, was all full of white pine, and that’s what was left after the drought," says Koontz. "There was trees every six foot all the way through this whole area, that died.”

Having to cut down hundreds of trees was discouraging, and the Koontz’s even considered quitting altogether. But Jay says even though it may get tough in the next couple years, they’ll keep up the farm as long as they can do the work.