Growers ready for area residents seeking perfect Christmas trees

Published Nov 29, 2018 at 12:00pm

WESTMORELAND — Tall, short, bushy or slender, area tree farms and growers have a multitude of Christmas tree varieties to offer this holiday season.

There have been reports of shortages of Christmas trees down in the South and California, because growers didn’t keep up with planting saplings during the recession, but George Joseph, owner of North Star Orchards, 4741 Route 233, said that is no where near the case in the region.

“Locally, tree sources are as plentiful as they have ever been,” said Joseph. “I’m not aware of any shortages in our vicinity, which is at least a 100-mile radius.”

“We grow our trees so we have Cut-Your-Own here,” he said.

Joseph said whether it be early-season snow storms or people readying their homes with holiday spirit in time for guests served during the Thanksgiving holiday, many traditional real tree purchases have already been made by several area residents.

“I can’t believe the number of trees we’ve sold already and Thanksgiving” was early, the orchard owner said. “I think the snow brought people out. But some people have guests for Thanksgiving and they want their tree out by then, or others want the choice. But it does seem early” — way ahead of the kick-off to the holiday season.

Besides their Cut-Your-Own, North Star staff also cut quite a few trees that are readily available for purchase. They are open daily 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

“We’re probably one of the larger tree operations around — we sell over 1,000” a season, Joseph said. “And prices are right in line where they always have been.”

He said, “I think the quality is really good this year. Given the early year” of when Thanksgiving fell, “I would tell you that you have an extra week to sell trees. I anticipate we won’t sell out because we grow our own, but we’ll have that extra week to sell them.”

The dominant Christmas tree, as far as local popularity, is the Fraser fir, with subtle color and good needle retention, Joseph said. Balsam firs tend to be the second most popular, and there are Concolor firs as well. As for Douglas firs, some area growers have had difficulty growing them, he said.

There are also white firs, with longer, softer needles that tend to give off a “citrusy” scent.

“We do have for Cut-Your-Own, and the most economical — the white spruce,” Joseph said. “They have all the smell you’d ever remember, they have a good shape, but they’re just not the best at needle retention.”

Joseph said all the trails into the Cut-Your-Own fields at North Star are accessible by car. And in addition to Christmas trees, the orchard also has handmade wreaths, garlands, crosses and kissing balls for sale. He said normally staff would need to wait for at least two good frosts so that trees woulds stop producing sap before they cut brush to make the wreaths and other holiday decorations. So cutting just started fairly recently.

“We also do hundreds of baskets,” Joseph said. “And cookie trays — the ladies bake between 5,000 to 6,000 cookies a night. They go to a lot of businesses for holiday parties, but as we get closer to Christmas, the shift goes to

individual orders. From Thanksgiving on, we’re constantly going.”

Over at Massoud’s Tree Farm, 9716 Roberts Road in Sauquoit, owner Omar Massoud said his business offers hay rides on the weekends for Cut-Your-Own. They also sell pre-cut trees found “undercover in the big building,” he said. The family business is celebrating 45 years of operation.

Massoud’s offers balsam firs, Fraser firs, a balsam/Fraser cross (breed) and Colorado Blue Spruce, which he said are all equally popular. Staff will wrap the trees and help tie them on customers’ vehicles.

“All the trees we sell are today’s trends,” Massoud said.

In addition to trees, Massoud’s also sells handmade wreaths, garlands, kissing balls and a wide variety of centerpieces to decorate the holiday table or mantle.

As for the centerpieces, “We can’t keep them on the shelves,” he said.

Massoud’s is open Sunday through Monday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., but Cut-Your-Own remains open only to around dusk at 4 p.m.

“We provide the saws, and it’s quite an experience,” Massoud said. “It’s the Kodak (family) moment.”

Dick Shuster, owner of Shuster Tree Farm on Senn Road in Rome, said it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas tree season over at his fields.

“Some people won’t come if there is snow, ‘cause they don’t want to get their feet wet, but other people won’t come until there is snow,” said Shuster. “As long as it’s not on the trees, it’s kind of enjoyable to have snow out there. And of course, I pretty much just do choose-and-cut, where people come and cut their own tree and then drag it out, so it’s always nice to have snow to drag it on as opposed to grass.”

The unusually early prodigious snowfall this November has tree farms looking the part as the buying season opens at most farms the day after Thanksgiving. The advantage is celebrants can get their tree early. The disadvantage: An early Thanksgiving means an extra week to keep trees fresh and needles on.

Some media have reported a shortage of trees, but that doesn’t seem likely in New York. Shuster said that might be true of giant tree farms with upwards of 60,000 or more trees who cut back 10 years ago expecting artificial trees to get more popular. But not here. He has about 6,000 trees on 10 acres.

“We’re selling more live trees than ever,” Shuster said. “Around here, we’ve got plenty of trees.”

Last year, Americans bought 27.4 million real trees, paying on average $75, about the same as in 2016, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.
While New York saw in decline in acreage and dealers from 2002 through 2007 and 2012, according to the half-decade national Census of Agriculture, the state still had 875 dealers and more than 18,600 acres in tree production, according to the trade group, which derisively describes artificial trees as “fake.”

Prices are holding steady: Shuster sells you-cut trees at $35 each and $40 for pre-cut. He and wife Julie let customers come ahead of Black Friday opening and pick out and tag a tree to cut later, but they won’t let you take in then because they want you to have a fresh tree. Six weeks is typically the longest trees will keep their needles.

There are exceptions. “Yesterday I did sell one a little early. I had a family come in and he was being deployed right after Thanksgiving so I let them cut a tree.”

Fraser fir is best for needles.

Thanksgiving-Christmas is time of most retail traffic but it’s busy all year, from stump removal and fertilizing in spring, to summer-long mowing and late-summer pruning and shearing to get the classic shape.

Shuster provides bow saws for customers and recommends having someone pull on one side of the tree to help keep the saw from getting pinched. Once home, unless it’s put in a stand with water right away, he recommends making a fresh cut about an inch up the trunk. Otherwise, sap can clog the pores and keep the tree from using water in the stand.

Shuster has a degree from SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry and taught conservation and forestry for 33 years at BOCES. He acknowledges tree farms like his aren’t the same as natural forests, but they have their benefits.

“It’s a tree plantation, is what we call it. But it does provide a lot of oxygen for the air and takes in carbon dioxide. Trees are all biodegradable,” he said.

As for cutting your own tree from public land, that’s not allowed in New York, according to DEC spokeswoman Lori Severino.

It’s against the law to harvest trees without a permit from state land, and permits aren’t given for single tree harvests. Trees can’t be cut without permits in the forest preserve of the Adirondack Park, as well.

However, many national forests do sell permits for household harvest of Christmas trees. That goes for the Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont, where permits are $5. The Green Mountain administers New York’s only national forest, the Finger Lakes National Forest in Schuyler and Seneca counties, but because of the geography there, it doesn’t issue Christmas tree permits.