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November 30, 2001   Email to Friend 

Special to Alfa Farmers
November 30, 2001

"Montgomery, Ala." Families in search of the perfect Christmas tree this holiday season may discover that Alabama-grown varieties offer advantages over store-bought trees, according to the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.

Although the number of Alabama-grown Christmas trees has declined in the past decade, Extension Horticulturist Ken Tilt said there still are about 80 Christmas tree producers throughout the state, generating almost a $1 million in annual sales.

"Alabama's Christmas trees will never compete with the big producers up North or the mass markets, but Alabama growers have carved out a small, but profitable niche in the choose-and-cut market and offer a special alternative," Tilt added.

About 95 percent of Alabama Christmas tree growers operate choose-and-cut Christmas tree farms as part of an emerging agricultural trend often described as "entertainment farming." In fact, many producers have established choose-and-cut Christmas tree farms in combination with other forms of entertainment farming, such as u-pick vegetables, strawberries, pumpkins and even daylilies, Tilt said.

"Farmers who remain in Christmas tree production are all seasoned growers with skills to produce the highest quality Southern trees," he said. "Most are still involved in this hard work because they enjoy the Christmas season and the people who flood their farms every year."

Tilt points out that many Alabama producers also accommodate customers who still prefer Northern varieties, such as firs, spruces and scotch pines.

"Many of our growers buy premium Northern trees to offer customers, along with knowledgeable service to help them pick the correct stand and load them in their cars," he says.

Leyland cypress remains the most popular Southern Christmas tree, representing about 50 percent of total production. Virginia pine is second, at between 30 and 40 percent, followed by Arizona cypress, red cedar and white pine at about 10 percent. White pines, however, are grown only in north Alabama.

Widely known as the "Southern Christmas tree," Leyland cypress trees offer the advantages of freshness and sparse needle shedding throughout the holiday season. The Alabama Christmas tree industry's biggest competitor remains artificial trees or what Tilt jokingly describes as "bah, humbug trees." "These trees have a place, but they aren't as environmentally friendly as Alabama-grown trees," he says. "The advantage of buying your tree from an Alabama farm is choosing your own tree and knowing that you're helping your local agricultural community."

One additional advantage is that live trees can be recycled for mulch or used as fish habitats. Another advantage associated with Alabama-grown trees is the way they often evoke a Christmas spirit among buyers, Tilt says.

"Once you visit a choose-and-cut farm and catch this Christmas spirit, you will have started a tradition with your family, creating memories that will last a lifetime," he says. In fact, this phenomenon has not gone unnoticed by tree producers, who enhance this atmosphere with music, hot dogs and even hayrides. To gain additional advantages over artificial trees, Alabama producers also are experimenting with newer, innovative ways to market their trees. Some farmers, for example, are offering Leyland cypress trees in 15- and 20-gallon containers. Unlike Northern tree species, these trees are well suited for planting in the landscape after Christmas.

Tilts says container trees are a great option for those who have room in their landscape for a large evergreens and want to get the most for their money. Handling is simple, Tilt says. Buyers need only drop the containers in plastic trash bags while they are displayed in the home to prevent water from spilling onto the floor.

"The 12- to 15-inch tall containers provide the perfect place to crowd lots of presents around the tree or to use a Christmas tree skirt," Tilt says. "Also, be sure to plant it after about two weeks after purchase, so that it doesn't become too acclimated to the warm indoor temperatures."

If, on the other hand, you plan to cut your tree, Tilt recommends cutting about 1 inch off the base before setting it in water. That way, you ensure there is no dirt or debris on the base that may prevent water uptake.

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