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By Gretchen Metz, Staff Writer


Christmas tree farms have their work cut out for them as they work to satisfy consumers’ changing tastes while keeping their traditional roots.

As consumers scout out taller trees for new homes with vaulted ceilings, they still want the family experience of hot chocolate, cookies and visiting Santa.

Meanwhile, tree farmers look for an edge to differentiate themselves from the competition.

Hay rides, 15-foot Santas and trains that take tree shoppers over the river and into the woods to chop down their own trees are just a few of the "agritainment" offerings that will greet local Christmas tree shoppers this year.

It all adds up to a tall order for an industry looking to sell 24.5 million trees this holiday season.

Ann McGrail, who owns and operates Shamrock Christmas Tree Farm in Sadsbury, said while farms are bought up by developers at a fast pace, there are still a number of tree farmers left in Chester County.

But McGrail likes the competition.

"Without it, we’d be sloppy, tired and overpriced," McGrail said.

McGrail, who grew up on the 25-year-old tree farm, took over operations from her Aunt Thelma and Uncle Pat four years ago.

"It’s a lifestyle," McGrail said of the farm. "And if you’re lucky, it’s a living. Eleven months of the year it’s quiet. You mow and trim and watch for bugs and disease. Then it’s high-volume retail for 30 days."

But getting the customer on the farm sometimes comes down to what is offered besides the acres of trees.

At Shamrock, it’s hot chocolate, cookies, elves and the railroad that greet customers.

McGrail said it was her uncle who loved trains and her aunt who loved Christmas trees that resulted in a tree farm with a train.

In addition to the amenities, a tree farm has to keep up with changing consumer tastes.

McGrail said tall trees are gaining popularity as more people move into large homes with cathedral ceilings.

More than 50 years ago, people bought Christmas trees that were "very thin and spindly," said Gary Westlake, of Westlake Tree Farms in Warwick.

In the ’50s and ’60s, dense trees, almost like hedges, became popular, Westlake said. And in the ’80s and ’90s, tightly sheared needles were most desirable.

This year, Fraser firs continue to grow in popularity just because of their excellent foliage, Westlake said.

Like McGrail, Westlake notes the changes brought on by competition.

"Things have changed and people are being more competitive by adding additional services like bailing, shaking and drilling. They’re offering refreshments for sale and things like wagon rides. Like any other retail business, it’s just ways to be more competitive."

Westlake, president of the Pennsylvania Christmas Tree Growers Association, referred to combining farms with activities for customers as "agritainment."

At the 53-year-old Westlake Tree Farm, agritainment includes a model train display, tractor-drawn rides and appearances by Santa Claus and Dollie the Elf.

At Windridge Farm in West Vincent, customers get free hot chocolate and cookies. But what sets that farm apart is a 15-foot Santa.

"It’s wonderful seeing the children, parents getting pictures of their children around the Santa," said Joan Michaelson, who operates the farm with her husband, Thomas.

Windridge Farm went into the Christmas tree business nine years ago.

Michaelson agrees with other tree growers about the competition -- but wonders why.

"It’s hard to believe with the cost of property that anyone goes into trees," Michaelson said.

If it rains on weekends before Christmas, the operation may not break even.

For local Christmas tree growers and the rest of the industry, there is good news. The 2004 Christmas tree buying season is shaping up well, according to industry watchers.

A nationwide poll conducted by Wirthlin Worldwide/Harris Interactive reports U.S. consumers plan to buy more live Christmas trees this year than in 2003.

The poll -- conducted for the National Christmas Tree Association -- projects that U.S. consumers will purchase about 24 million to 24.5 million real Christmas trees. Last year, U.S. consumers purchased about 23.4 million trees.

"We are excited about this potential increase in purchases of real trees," said Irwin Loiterstein, chairman of the NCTA Market Expansion Task Force. "If consumers follow through with these intentions, it will be the second straight year of increased purchases."

Reporter Michael Lello contributed to this article.

İDaily Local News 2005


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Last modified: 12/01/07