CONCORD, N.H. — As Christmas approaches, Paula Letson looks forward to picking out and cutting down her own tree, a tradition she’s kept for more than 20 years.
“I love it,” said Letson, 62, who finds her tree each year at The Rocks Estate in Bethlehem, N.H., home of a nonprofit conservation center. For years, she and her husband, Edward, brought their two sons, now in their 20s.
Letson, a high school teacher from Littleton, N.H., has memories of pulling her boys around in a plastic sled through the rows of trees. She remembers arguing with them when they got older over which was the best tree “while you’re totally freezing,” and watching them help cut and carry the trees.
“It’s a wonderful tradition, and it’s a wonderful thing to do in a world now that is so much away from nature,” she said. “All the technology and all the craziness and all the horrible news— it just gives you a chance to maybe step back to a simpler time.”
Lowell Freiman, owner of Davis Stream Tree Farm in Washington, Maine, said he’s reduced his inventory of trees for wholesale by roughly half to meet consumers’ growing desire for a tree-cutting experience.
“A lot of families want to have a more personal relationship with things they are consuming,” said Freiman, who has about 7,000 trees in different stages of growth. If the average holds up, we would sell about 650 to self-cutters this season.” He’ll have a better idea of the numbers later in the season.
Davis Stream and other tree farms in Northern New England are seeing a growth in the “cut your own” Christmas tree trend. Jim Horst, executive director of the New Hampshire-Vermont Christmas Tree Association, said that segment of the industry is growing the fastest for tree farmers.
“If you feel like doing that, that’s a value-added business, because you command a higher price for your trees than the wholesale market would allow,” said Horst, in Bennington, Vt.
According to the Chesterfield, Mo.-based National Christmas Tree Association, consumers bought 28.2 million farm-grown Christmas trees and 11.7 million artificial trees in the U.S. last year, about the same as in 2008. The average amount spent on a farm-grown tree was about $41, compared with $77 on a fake tree.
Of the consumers across the country who bought a farm-grown tree, 78 percent got a precut tree and 22 percent cut their own, the association said. Those numbers have held steady in the last few years, Rick Dungey of the association said.
Many families with a tree-cutting tradition set up picnics during the outing, Freiman said. He accommodates them at an area near Davis stream where they can put their food on tree stumps and sit and eat.
Mike Ahern, a fourth-generation farmer at the Glove Hollow Christmas Tree Farm in Plymouth, N.H., opened his farm to visitors to cut their own tree the weekend before Thanksgiving. “People want the best selection,” he said.
Ahern, who spent most of the past week shipping about 4,000 trees to businesses, estimates he’ll sell about 2,000 trees to people who stop by the farm this year.
One practice that some farmers have put a stop to is tree-tagging, where consumers pre-pick their trees, attach a tag to them, and return on a future visit to cut them down. Farmers say some people have turned into Grinches and have switched the tags on the trees, taking someone else’s. Others never return to claim them, leaving trees that could have been sold.
“You try to keep everybody happy,” said Steve Forster of Henniker, N.H., who runs a Christmas tree farm and gift shop featuring imported glass ornaments from Europe. “I really don’t want people aggravated because their tree is gone.”
Associated Press Writer Glenn Adams in Augusta, Maine, contributed to this story.