Is Christmas Tree Farming a Bankable Business?

More often than not, it's a labor of love for Rhode Island growers.
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Illustration by Hye Jin Chung

The farm passed from John and Mary Maciel to their son, Frank, to their daughter Liz and her husband, Bob Balme. By the time Balme retired, the younger generation was busy with babies and careers. For five years, the fields took their direction from nature’s more ferocious aggressors. Queen Anne’s lace and drooping heads of goldenrod swayed beside tall, dark evergreens lashed by painterly dabs of brilliant green bittersweet.

Two years ago, the Balmes’ daughter, Julie, and her husband, Paul, decided it was time to revive it. With the help of a neighbor, they leveled one field and planted 500 seedlings. A CFO Monday to Friday, McKenney drives an hour and a half from Glocester to spend weekends tending a single field.

“Sitting at a computer all day sucks the life out of you; it’s so nice to be working outside,” he says. “But I don’t have the science part down yet and if something has an engine, I will break it. We may risk failing, but we are committed to seeing it through.”

In the face of inexperience, persistence must do. Christopher Lussier oversaw crop failures two seasons in a row as he tried to start his Christmas tree farm on an eight-acre property in Cumberland. He envisioned a low-maintenance gentleman’s farm to generate some revenue for his retirement and his kids’ college educations. So far, he has only raised concerns about why he lost nearly 1,000 trees. But Lussier is also a financial adviser and a landlord of rental properties with a two-year-old daughter and another on the way.

“I knew there would be challenges and learning. I haven’t been able to put the effort in that it deserves,” he says. “But this is my hobby. I stay very, very busy.”

Even Rhode Island’s largest and most storied farm is not a full-time gig. Timothy Leyden spends his September weekends readying Big John Leyden’s Christmas Tree Farm for its Field of Screams Halloween horror-fest. A giant fiberglass Santa may preside over 100,000 trees on the 125-acre spread in West Greenwich, but he is just a team player. Big John’s also runs a year-round tree nursery business and rents acreage to a solar farm. Leyden owns rental properties and works full-time in national sales for banks and mortgage companies.

“A Christmas tree farm has to have additional sources of income to stay viable and profitable. You work all year for eight days, and if it rains or snows you lose one,” he says. “That’s not a good business plan.”

According to the 1992 Southern New England Christmas Tree Growers Guide, there was a time when demand for natural Christmas trees outstripped the supply. But artificial trees that pop open like umbrellas, already festooned with lights, have long been the farmer’s most insidious foe. The CTPB’s Gray says there are no reliable sales data for natural versus artificial trees. But the organization, with funds collected from growers through a voluntary check-off program, is promoting the environmental and aesthetic advantages of natural pines with the “It’s Christmas. Keep it Real” ad campaign.

“Younger consumers are very excited about natural Christmas trees again,” she says. Will the millennials save Christmas tree farms?

Cranston tree farmers Ron and Cheryl Rossi have been providing holiday memories to local families since 1988. Their property is postcard-perfect, with a small covered bridge over a stream bisecting rolling fields of sculpted pines on a cropped mat of grass. Sometimes, families bring picnic baskets and loll in the fields for two hours when they tag their trees, he says. Ron grew up on his parents’ farm next door and still doesn’t entirely understand his customers’ preferences.

“Everybody likes something different: Some people like perfect trees; some like ugly trees. I’m baffled by it,” he says.

There is one aspect of buying a local Christmas tree that hardly anyone likes: cutting it down. Most places do not allow customers to wield chainsaws. The few who come to unleash their inner lumberjacks usually lose their passion for handsaws about halfway through.
“After ten minutes of sawing, they’re lying on their backs under the tree, thinking: Okay, we had the experience,” Rossi says. “Then, we finish it.”

Ellen Liberman is an award-winning journalist who has commented on politics and reported on government affairs for more than two decades.

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