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Good year for tree farms

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- "Every year, it seems people want a Christmas tree earlier," Bob Whipkey said this week from his porch, overlooking his 6-acre tree farm in Big Chimney. "This year was no different. I had a record crowd the day after Thanksgiving and that weekend."

Whipkey along with other West Virginia farmers, provide area residents the chance to make a trip to the farm, pick a Christmas tree and cut it down to take home for the holidays.

The 2013 West Virginia "Choose-And-Cut" Christmas Tree Farms catalog features 31 West Virginia farms providing the service across the Mountain State.

Business has been good for Whipkey.

"So far this year the business has continued to grow to the point where we don't advertise anymore because we get all the customers we can handle actually," Whipkey said. "I even sold one tree this year, the largest tree I've ever sold at 16 feet tall, the last day of October. I've never sold one that early."

Rick Dungey, spokesman for the National Christmas Tree Association, said it's an interesting time for the industry.

"While there has been some consolidation and reduction of total farms growing trees, consumer demand is still strong and predicted to get stronger," Dungey said. "There will always be strong demand for the on-farm, cut your own tree experience. That's an important tradition for many families."

After a while, farmers like Whipkey start knowing what to expect each year.

"The people who come early, right after Thanksgiving, always want the big trees," Whipkey said. "Then you have the people calling about a week before Christmas saying they need a tree and those are the easiest to deal with because they will come and grab just about the first tree they see."

Whipkey sells his trees at $35 regardless of size or species. He typically closes his farm the week of Christmas. After the selling season it's onto maintenance, he said.

Removing the tree stumps from the ground take about a month to month and half, Whipkey said. Then it's onto mowing and trying to deter the deer and sheering trees.

Larry and Syble Wilkerson operate the Wilkerson Tree Farm in Lincoln County.

"Our sales were about the same as last year with most customers coming on the first weekend due to the late date of Thanksgiving," Larry said. They've already closed for the season.

Both farmers agreed the selling season was a bit rushed with Thanksgiving falling so late this year.

The Wilkersons have operated their tree farm since 1971. They sell trees for a flat fee of $23 regardless of size or species.

"Those trees not cut stay in the field for sale next season, unlike those sold on a tree lot. It is necessary to reserve a quantity of trees for our regular customers for next year," Larry said.

In 2012, fresh cut trees netted $1.1 billion in sales, according to the National Christmas Tree Association's consumer survey.

 The latest Census of Agriculture Tables, from 2007, ranks West Virginia 25th among states in total trees harvested. The last Census conducted in 2002 shows a 30 percent decline in tree harvesting in the state.

Dungey said "any number of factors including, how many landowners are farmers and what do those farmers decided to grow" could make a state more successful than others.

"Christmas trees are probably the most popular crop grown in the country," said Arnold Spitzen, president of the West Virginia Christmas Tree Growers Association.

The association represents about 100 farms in the state. They aim to educate growers on proper growing practices and establish lines of communications between growers.

Neighboring Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia rank in the top 10 for total trees harvested by state. 

"Years ago Christmas trees were grown only on marginal land, today however site selection has become an important factor in growing quality," Spitzen said. "While West Virginia grows some of the best Christmas trees the state is not considered a major growing state. Most of our growers are family farms and an integral part of the state's economy."

Reach Caitlin Cook at caitlin.cook@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5113.


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