Christmas tree growers hopeful about season as plastic rivals make gains

Twenty-month-old Evan Bambrick of Levant (center) came to Piper Mountain Christmas tree farm in Newburgh with his parents Nick Bambrick (left) and his mother Jen Bambrick Monday for this Christmas tree.
Twenty-month-old Evan Bambrick of Levant (center) came to Piper Mountain Christmas tree farm in Newburgh with his parents Nick Bambrick (left) and his mother Jen Bambrick Monday for this Christmas tree. Buy Photo
Posted Dec. 02, 2013, at 5:43 p.m.
Last modified Dec. 03, 2013, at 7:17 a.m.
Thom Tardiff of Brewer carries his daughter Claire, 4, while trying to pick out a tree at the Piper Mountain Christmas tree farm in Newburgh Monday.
Thom Tardiff of Brewer carries his daughter Claire, 4, while trying to pick out a tree at the Piper Mountain Christmas tree farm in Newburgh Monday. Buy Photo
Thom Tardiff (left) of Brewer cuts down the tree his family selected after much searching at the Piper Mountain Christmas tree farm in Newburgh Monday. Also pictured are his wife Shaylee Tardiff and his daughter Claire.
Thom Tardiff (left) of Brewer cuts down the tree his family selected after much searching at the Piper Mountain Christmas tree farm in Newburgh Monday. Also pictured are his wife Shaylee Tardiff and his daughter Claire. Buy Photo
Claire Tardiff, 4, of Brewer (left) walks around at the Piper Mountain Christmas tree farm in Newburgh with her parents Shaylee (center) and Thom Tardiff while trying to pick out a tree Monday.
Claire Tardiff, 4, of Brewer (left) walks around at the Piper Mountain Christmas tree farm in Newburgh with her parents Shaylee (center) and Thom Tardiff while trying to pick out a tree Monday. Buy Photo
Vern Labbe loads a freshly cut Christmas tree into a waiting truck Saturday morning at this Labbe Tree Farm in Frenchville. &quotThe people who come here are like family," the 62-year-old forester said. After raising and selling trees for three decades, Labbe is on his third generation of tree hunters.
Julia Bayly
Vern Labbe loads a freshly cut Christmas tree into a waiting truck Saturday morning at this Labbe Tree Farm in Frenchville. "The people who come here are like family," the 62-year-old forester said. After raising and selling trees for three decades, Labbe is on his third generation of tree hunters. Buy Photo

FORT KENT, Maine — Few things embody the sights, scents or sentiments of the holiday season better than a freshly cut Maine Christmas tree.

“Things are looking pretty good,” according to Gaye Richards, a Mapleton tree farmer and president of the Maine Christmas Tree Association. “My sales over the last three days are bigger than the same time last year.”

In fact, Christmas tree sales were brisk around the state this past weekend as Mainers took to the woodlots the weekend after Thanksgiving to select the perfect tree.

Richards said that tree prices are ranging between $25 and $35 when bought directly from a farmer. Since the state does not regulate tree farms and the association does not keep track of overall sales, however, there are no statewide figures available concerning the industry’s economic impact, she said.

Still, Richards believed it was shaping up to be a good year.

“With Thanksgiving six days later than last year, our season is quite condensed,” Richards said. “It’s a bit early to say how the year will go, but it looks good.”

Like many tree farmers in the state, Richards sells both wholesale to tree dealers out of state and directly to consumers from her farm.

While she did not know how many trees were shipped out of state over the past several days, she said everyone who does ship is pretty well finished with that part of their season for the year.

“The wholesale market is just finishing up,” she said. “Most of the trees have already left, though there may be a few stragglers.”

Buyers of Maine’s Christmas trees want them in time for the busy shopping days immediately after Thanksgiving, according to Richards.

As do those residents who make the annual trek to their favorite tree farm to select their own tree, like Donna Picard of Frenchville, who knows to pick no tree before its time.

The mother of three grown children was expecting a quiet Christmas this year and had no plans for a tree until she got word last week that two sons, their girlfriends and a couple of dogs will be home for the holidays.

“Oh, they are going to judge my tree, don’t you worry,” she said after spending close to 45 minutes searching out and finding the perfect tree at Labbe Tree Farm in Frenchville on Saturday morning. “But I always find the perfect one here.”

Picard has been getting her trees from Vern Labbe for 22 years.

Labbe, a full-time forester with the Maine Bureau of Public Lands, has been operating his 7-acre tree farm since 1983. Even after three decades, it’s more hobby than work, he said.

“The people who come to get trees are like family,” he said Saturday. “Now I’m seeing the second generation coming bringing their kids to get trees.”

Adults, children and even dogs running up and down the rows of balsam fir are a common sight at the Labbe farm this time of year and Vern Labbe wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I love seeing the people here,” he said.

Labbe sells retail directly from his farm and said business is good.

“To me, the [Christmas tree] industry looks good,” he said. “But, I’m a pretty small operation.”

Labbe sells around 350 trees a year, mostly to people like Picard for whom Christmas is as much about family tradition as it is about the day itself.

“Remember Vern, I’d come with the kids and we’d all hold hands around the tree to make sure it was the right size?” she said as Labbe loaded her freshly cut tree into her pickup truck. “And I’d stand on tippy-toes to make sure it was tall enough.”

Holding fast to the tradition of a real Maine balsam fir is important to Picard.

“If you live in Maine and have an artificial tree, that’s pretty sad,” she said.

“It sure makes me sad,” Labbe said with a laugh.

Artificial trees also rankle Jim Corliss, who with his wife, Norma, owns Piper Mountain Christmas tree farm in Newburgh, which sells directly from the farm and wholesale.

“Our customers come get their tree from us because it’s tradition,” Corliss said Monday morning. “Unfortunately, for more and more families that tradition is plastic and it’s really too bad.”

As an industry, Christmas tree growers have done a poor job promoting their product, Corliss, past president of the national growers’ association and of the Maine association, said.

“The plastic people have done a good job of advertising by using the names of real trees,” he said.

Because many of Maine’s Christmas tree growers are hobbyists with full-time jobs, Corliss said the need for aggressive self-promotion is not a priority.

“They grow a limited number of trees and are selling all they are growing,” he said. “They don’t see the need for promotion.”

In 2011, an industry supported program that would have assessed any grower selling more than 500 trees 15 cents a tree to fund a USDA marketing and promotion program was derailed when it was touted by opponents as a Christmas tree tax.

Such a program, Corliss said on Monday, would help boost the natural tree industry, which has seen steady market declines since 1970 while sales of artificial trees increase.

Still, for many, nothing replaces a real Maine balsam fir.

“People equate Maine with a relaxed atmosphere and the ultimate vacation,” Richards said. “I think the trees perhaps get them thinking about taking life a little slower and realizing what is really important.”

Few things make Corliss happier than sharing the love of trees.

In fact, Monday morning, with the help of the American Legion and FedEx, he was finishing up the gathering and shipping of 300 Maine Christmas trees destined for Fort Campbell, Ky., as part of the national Trees for Troops program.

If this past weekend was any indication, Corliss said it’s shaping up to be a busy year.

“When Thanksgiving comes late, people all of a sudden wake up to the idea Christmas is coming,” he said. “Often that weekend is like a shakedown cruise for us [and] that first weekend in December is when it really gets going. When you have the two combine, there is no shakedown, it’s more of a shake out.”

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