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Conifer Commerce: Oklahoma's Lingering Drought Means Higher Prices, Smaller Trees

Joseph Hollowell and Drew Polk hold a Christmas tree in the tree shaker at Sorghum Mill Tree Farm in Edmond.
Brent Fuchs
/
The Journal Record

The weather is turning colder, and it’s been wet and dreary all week, so Oklahoma’s long-term drought doesn’t necessarily come to mind the way it does during the summer month.

We’ve discussed the effects of Oklahoma’s drought on the cattle ranching industry, but the ongoing climate event also impacts a different kind of agricultural worker – Christmas tree farmers.

“Like other farmers, it costs them money,” says the Journal Record’s managing editor Adam Brooks. “In severe years, the drought can kill trees, and the trees that do grow don't have as long to grow, they don't get to as good of heights, so they're a little less marketable.”

Jean Collins owns the 10-acre farm All Pine Products in Yukon. She told the Journal Record’s BrianBrus several farmers lost thousands and thousands of trees three years ago.

“But people seem to be coming out regardless, because it’s a tradition, and they’re a little more accepting of a slightly smaller tree,” she said. “It’s just hard for the consumer to understand that weather three years ago might have such a major impact on the trees they’re buying today.” Most of her repeat consumers are happy with slightly shorter trees, Collins said. But for those who are committed to a ceiling-scraping star, the majority of the state’s 30 tree farms have shipped in more stock from out of state, according to the Oklahoma Christmas Tree Association. The options keep customers happy, but at greater expense.

“There are people who still want the bigger trees, they want a star that scrapes the ceiling, and the tree lots can still provide those,” Brooks says. “But they have to ship them in from out of state, and of course that costs more money than just bringing it from another part of the state.”

The Oklahoma Christmas Tree Association says the top-selling state-grown conifer is the Virginia pine. The University of Kentucky’s Department of Horticulture describes it as a rugged tree that grows well in full sun and Oklahoma’s heavy clay. It also grows in a broad, open pyramid shape when it’s young, with a lot of low branches, making it easy to decorate.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says the number of harvested trees dropped from nearly 21 million in 2002 to 17.3 million in 2012, but some of that drop can be traced to overall spending behavior during the recession, and competition from artificial tree manufacturers. But State Forester GeorgeGeissler says the drought has strongly affected tree growth patterns across Oklahoma.

It takes about nine years for an evergreen to grow to its full potential for sale, so tree farmers are under pressure similar to what cattle ranchers face, struggling to pace production over multiple seasons to keep a reasonably steady income flow. A couple of years of missed growth can be absorbed by the market, but it can still drive a Christmas tree operation out of business, Geissler said. He said this year was the first time in at least a decade that a new tree farm launched in the state.

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The Business Intelligence Report is a collaborative news project between KGOU and The Journal Record.

As a community-supported news organization, KGOU relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online, or by contacting our Membership department.

The Journal Record is a multi-faceted media company specializing in business, legislative and legal news. Print and online content is available via subscription.

Brian Hardzinski is from Flower Mound, Texas and a graduate of the University of Oklahoma. He began his career at KGOU as a student intern, joining KGOU full time in 2009 as Operations and Public Service Announcement Director. He began regularly hosting Morning Edition in 2014, and became the station's first Digital News Editor in 2015-16. Brian’s work at KGOU has been honored by Public Radio News Directors Incorporated (PRNDI), the Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters, the Oklahoma Associated Press Broadcasters, and local and regional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists. Brian enjoys competing in triathlons, distance running, playing tennis, and entertaining his rambunctious Boston Terrier, Bucky.
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