When a recession sets in, Americans make cuts. Industries that produce luxury items often bear the brunt of the market alterations, and during the Great Recession many folks tossed Christmas trees into that category.
Trees that weren’t purchased meant trees that weren’t cut and land that couldn’t be planted with fresh trees and growers without cash on hand for more seeds and starts. Growers count on getting an average of a foot a year of growth from the trees they plant, meaning it takes anywhere from six to eight years to have a tree finally hit the optimal height for Christmas tree consumers, said Marvin Kaschke, owner of Kaschke’s Christmas Tree Farm outside of Polson.
The trees that weren’t planted back at the height of the recession have now left gaping holes in the living rooms of folks all over the country, and left those who do get trees paying higher prices.
Reports from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the San Francisco Chronicle and other leading national news outlets have detailed the difficulties their residents face in trying to find a good tree at a decent price this holiday season and predict a troubled market for years to come.
Fortunately, a survey of local growers and Christmas tree suppliers in the Flathead Valley by the Daily Inter Lake revealed people living in our readership area don’t need to worry about trees disappearing altogether, but there are other foreboding indicators the local market may not be at its best. Price increases and the disappearance of local Christmas tree farms pose an immediate threat to local traditions.
FOR 30 YEARS, Kaschke has been operating his Christmas tree farm off Kerr Dam Road on the top of a hill overlooking Polson. On clear days you can see all the way to the slopes of Whitefish Mountain from his fields.
Kaschke said the factors that make growing difficult everywhere apply to him too, despite the fact he only generally sells between 150 and 200 trees each year.
“What happens is if you plant it this year, then you are looking at marketing it eight years down the line,” Kaschke said. “That’s a long time to get any return on your dollars. That’s why fewer people are doing it.”
He said their used to be a wealth of growers in the valley, but over the years many of them have dropped out, one by one, falling to the scourge of corporate businesses stocking trees grown in larger farms in other parts of the country for less money than they can match. Customers are buying their trees out of parking lots more than farms, and that sends farmers to more dire economic straits.
Kaschke said he doesn’t know of another farm between Proctor and Missoula where customers can go pick their tree out of the lot while it’s still growing, despite the fact that the lower Flathead Valley used to be rife with them.
What people miss as a result, he said, is the experience of being able to walk through a real forest and pick out a tree, a middle road for folks who don’t have the time or energy to take their families out in the woods and cut down a wild tree, but also don’t want to pick one out of a stand in the parking lot. He said his farm felt like a special place in the community, and its disappearance in the local culture is regrettable.
“Here, people really like to come out to the tree farm, and they can take their families, and walk through the field and pick out a tree,” Kaschke said. “It’s more fun for them than to go to a lot in town and just pick up a tree.”
Kaschke explains that his work is hard and his margins are small. He’s enjoyed his post-retirement career as a tree farmer, but he’s 84 now and decided some time ago he needed to stop. He stopped planting new trees on his property about seven years ago, and this is his last year in business.
He said his children are grown and have careers of their own, so he doesn’t expect his mantle will be picked up by anyone, at least not anytime soon. The wealth of other growers that have closed up shop and not been replaced makes him suspect no one else is likely to spring up in the gap he’s left in the market.
“Sometime in the distant future I suspect it will be subdivided,” Kaschke said of his land overlooking Flathead Lake and the Mission Mountains.
MOST OF the Christmas trees in the nation come from either North Carolina or Oregon, where huge growers plant around 1,000 trees an acre and sell them wholesale to distributors everywhere. The system works and does so cheaply, but it isn’t without its downfalls. When a product is grown by only a small number of growers, then any mishaps to one grower affect the whole system.
Montana gets mercy from the tumult of the national Christmas tree market because it has a low population and has always had a decent number of growers. Even as those close down, locals in many parts of the state can always pay $5 to the U.S. Forest Service or local permit seller for a tag and cut a tree from public land.
That can be hard for the elderly or families with small children, but remains a good option for many others. Data obtained from the Forest Service on the number of permits sold for trees cut in the Flathead National Forest shows a dizzying rise and fall in popularity over the last 10 years.
One constant, however, is that many times more permits are sold for people to cut trees in the wild than Marvin Kaschke ever sold at his farm. Even in slow years for permits out of the forest, they sold about five times more than Kaschke.
Growers like Kaschke also often supplement their holiday stock with smaller wholesale purchases, too. When patrons go to his farm early in the season, they will be faced with a farm full of trees still in the ground and stock of trees that are already cut and priced and ready to be carried away.
Kaschke gets those trees from a wholesale grower in Idaho, who isn’t as big as the big players in Oregon or North Carolina, but does make his own farm pale in comparison.
A representative from Ace Hardware in Polson, which has a selection of Christmas trees they sell out of their parking lot facing U.S. 93, said they didn’t have any trouble obtaining enough trees this year, but they did raise prices slightly two years ago.
They also said a stand usually sets up shop in a vacant space across the highway and sells trees, but they weren’t there this year.
As the number of local options dwindle, Kaschke feels there’s still opportunity in the marketplace for those who might want to enter despite the long holiday hours and volatility.
Kaschke said he had sold all the trees he bought from the wholesaler this year and was still getting visitors from folks in the closing days before the holiday season.
“There is certainly a market for field trees where people can come out with their family and pick one,” Kaschke said.
Reporter Peregrine Frissell can be reached at (406) 758-4438 or firstname.lastname@example.org.