For many area families, Friday marked the opening day of hunting season-the approximately month long Christmas tree hunting season that is.
But the season actually starts much earlier for area Christmas tree farms. Between the planting and pruning and pricing and other preparations, growing and selling Christmas trees is a year-round job. And often times, the business is in addition to other full-time employment for the tree farm owners.
Bob and Helen Morrison, owners of Caywood Christmas Tree Farm in Marietta, planted their first tree in 1985 and sold their first crop in 1991.
“My mom and dad had a Christmas tree farm and my husband wanted to start a small business on the side from our regular jobs,” said Helen recalling the business’ origins.
Besides being almost solely responsible for the work that goes into their sprawling hillside of tress throughout the year, the Morrisons also hold full-time day jobs-Bob at Thermo Fisher Scientific and Helen at Washington County Job and Family Services.
“I don’t know how we do it. We’ve always done it. We just know that at ‘X’ time of year we should be doing this,” said Helen.
After Christmas season is over, the Morrisons will wait for good weather and grind down the stumps of those trees that were chosen and cut. Seedlings have already been ordered and the Morrisons will plant in the spring.
Come June, Helen and Bob will be up on the hill sheering and pruning trees one by one.
Then the fall comes and its time for Helen to price the trees. Every tree for sale has its own individual label. Around 500 pre-cut and cut-your-own Christmas trees are sold at Caywood Christmas Tree Farm every year, she said.
Helen also puts a lot of time into creating decorative live wreaths, a component of the business which has been growing and which she hopes to expand more, she said.
The expansion of related sales, such as wreaths, decorations, or other types of trees, have somewhat helped combat the declining sales of the trees themselves over the years, said Joe Dennis, whose family has owned Holiday Tree Farms in Veto for over 50 years.
“It’s starting to pick up a little bit as far as the live trees for landscaping go,” said Dennis.
In addition to Christmas trees, the farm sells “balled in burlap” shade trees in the spring and fall, something that helps Dennis’ great-uncle Larry Bills continue running the farm as his full time business.
Though the family business started as a side business by Bills and his brother-Dennis’ grandfather William Bills-it developed into a full scale family business.
In the early days of the business, the farm was one of the largest in the area, and thrived, said Dennis.
But the rising popularity of artificial trees coupled with the rising costs associated with the farm have made it harder.
Several years ago the farm did away with the cut-your-own option due to high insurance costs, said Dennis.
Dennis and his family plan on continuing the tradition that Larry and William started over 50 years ago.
“It’s just something they’ve always done and we want to keep doing it,” he said.
At Poplar Ridge Tree Farm in Malta, owners Ron and Chris Helle have been running their tree farm in addition to their jobs in the Morgan County School District for nine years.
“My husband and I do it all right now,” said Chris of the over 30 acres of trees they grow.
Originally the Helle’s five children helped with the tree farm, but now that the youngest is in college, the family is thinking of hiring extra help to conquer the farm’s workload.
“It’s year-round. We continue to trim trees, clear fields, and do spring planting,” she said.
Poplar Ridge Tree Farm also sells landscaping trees in the fall and the summer.
While it helps that Chris has summers off, the business is not currently lucrative enough to make it the sole source of income, said Chris.
“My husband would like nothing better than to be able to make this his full time job. Maybe down the road we can,” she said.
Live Christmas tree sales have been steadily declining over the past three to four years, she said.
According to the National Christmas Tree Association, 2012 saw the lowest number of live Christmas trees sold since their statistics begin in 2006.
Last year around 24.5 million real Christmas trees were sold across the nation. That is a decrease of over 6 million trees than the previous year.
In his over 40 years with the Belpre Shrine Club, Bruce Hardman has seen that decrease first hand.
The sale of pre-cut live Christmas trees is an annual fundraiser for the club, but nearly as big of a fundraiser as it once was, said Hardman.
“When I went into the Shrine Club in 1968, we’d get 200 to 300 trees in every year. We’ve have the whole club there selling trees all the time,” he recalled.
This year the club ordered less than 100 trees, he said.
While the family tradition of choosing a live tree may wane, it will not likely go away, said Dennis.
“A lot of what we sell are regular people that come back year after year. They like to bring their kids out and take pictures. It’s a family thing,” he said.
That was exactly what Randy Snyder and family were doing Friday at Caywood Christmas Tree Farm.
Snyder and wife Julie wound their way through hillsides of trees, scrutinizing them for shape and size while their four kids romped nearby and took turns riding and pulling the wagon that would carry their choice down the hill.
The family has been choosing a live tree together for approximately 11 years, said Julie.
“I like the tradition of coming out and getting it together,” she said.
Asked Randy, “Who would want to pass up the tradition of coming out with family and spending this time together?”