Ever Thought About Starting Your Own Christmas Tree Farm? Here’s What to Know
Want to keep the holiday spirit alive by growing Christmas trees? It's tough work, and it will be many years before your business is profitable.
Why would anyone start a Christmas tree farm? In the case of Tom Ward of Ward Ranch in Bonny Doon, California, it’s because he loved working with trees.
Ward started his farm in 1995, and it took ten years for the trees to grow large enough to sell. His business started making money only recently.
John and Karen Noltner of Noltner Tree Farm in Mondovi, Wisconsin, are more commercially oriented, but had a similar experience. They started their business 15 years ago, and John says “you gotta put money into it for 10 years” before seeing a positive return.
Both the Noltners and the Wards had other motivations besides profit. John Noltner considers his 50-acre farm a 3-D art project that heals the land by taking it out of the corn and soybean production cycle. Ward, who converted his considerably smaller farm from a horse grazing pasture, just loves the work.
“People have misconceptions that a tree I’m planting in January will be next year’s Christmas tree,” Ward says. In reality, even if you plant 16-inch seedlings, you’re waiting at least five to seven years before harvest, assuming ideal weather conditions.
Unlike the Noltners, the Wards like to experiment with species. In the temperate California growing environment, he grows more than 15 species. The Noltners, in a more Northerly, high-production farm, limit themselves to three or four.
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How To Start a Christmas Tree Farm
First — and this is obvious — you’ll need land, and least 10 to 20 acres. The more you have, the more likely you are to have a profitable operation.
“If you have enough land, enough volume and enough sales, you can hire other people to do the work,” Ward says. “If you’re small, you’re going to have to do all the work yourself. And if you don’t love what you’re doing, you’re like, ‘Why am I working for less than minimum wage?’ ”
Because you’re starting a business, you should give it a name, register it and secure the necessary business and tax licenses. You should also open bank accounts, get insurance and secure any licenses and permits required by local agricultural and environmental authorities.
When they set up their farm, the Noltners worked with the Wisconsin chapter of the Christmas Tree Growers Association to get them up to speed on legal and logistical issues.
What To Consider Before Growing Christmas Trees
Once you set up your business, it’s time to decide which trees to plant. Local growing conditions and how fast you want to start selling trees will determine your choice of species.
The Noltners focused on three fir species hardy to their U.S. Department of Agriculture Plant Hardiness Zone that grow quickly: Balsam, Fraser and Canaan. Ward, who lives in a more moderate climate, planted five fir, three cypress and three cedar varieties, as well as Colorado blue spruce, Monterey pine and even Giant sequoia and Coastal redwood.
Fast-growing trees are ready sooner, but beware. As Ward says, “The faster the tree, the more labor it takes.”
Speaking of labor, you’ll need to decide whether to do it yourself or hire someone. The Noltners chosen the latter, working with a company that handles all the upkeep, harvesting and replanting, and purchases the trees at wholesale prices.
Ward prefers to do the work himself, even if it means working for less than minimum wage (he’s also a teacher). He sells all his trees at a flat retail rate ($90 per) to customers who come and cut their own.
Main Duties of a Christmas Tree Farmer
Growing Christmas trees is a labor-intensive agricultural operation. The trees need the same TLC as any other crop, plus a little extra, including:
- Irrigation: A young tree needs about a quart of water per day, while one ready for harvest needs about three quarts. On the Noltners’ 50-acre farm, with 1,000 trees per acre, that’s between 12,500 and 37,500 gallons per day!
- Pest control: Christmas trees are vulnerable to insects, microbial infections and underground marauders like gophers. The planted area also must be periodically de-weeded, usually by mowing.
- Fertilizing: Growing trees usually need an application of fertilizer each spring, and maybe another one in fall, to stay vibrant and sellable.
- Shearing: The Christmas tree shape isn’t automatic; it comes only with periodic shearing. Fast-growing trees require the most work, sometimes needing shearing four times a year, according to Ward.
- Replanting: When trees are harvested, some growers leave the stumps and allow them to sprout new growth. Ward avoids this approach because he doesn’t like the look of stumps. He grinds the stumps and plants new seedlings, and the Noltners do the same.
Is Christmas Tree Farming Profitable?
“Can be,” says Ward. “I guess it depends on your size and your volume.”
For his part, Ward sells about 500 trees per season at a flat rate because “selling by the foot or species is too complicated.” Because he does most of the work himself, this represents a gross profit of $45,000 per year. From that, he deducts the cost of new seedlings, fertilizer and other necessary supplies.
Because the Noltners rely on an outside company, any profit they receive is a net profit. They don’t specify what it is, but it depends on the wholesale price of each tree.
According to data from Michigan State University, if they sell each tree for $20. they’re probably just breaking even. If they sell each tree for $50, a net $30 in profit for each one, they should be making between $75,000 and $150,000 for their stated annual turnover of 2,500 to 5,000 trees.