Slim Pickings for Christmas Trees Due to Drought

By KENNETH R. FLETCHER, Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS (Dec. 12, 2007) - It was "a real tough year" for Maryland's Christmas tree farms, as the drought killed off many seedlings and saplings and stressed the mature trees that will go into homes this holiday season.

While there should be a ready supply of market-size trees for families looking to cut their own, they "do look a little bit more sparse than they normally look," said Mike Gagarine of Good Spirits Christmas Tree Forest in Hagerstown.

But Gagarine said he lost close to two-thirds of the 3,000 seedlings he planted this year, twice what he would lose in a typical year.

At Modlin's Tree Farm in Lothian, Cyndi Modlin said she lost 30 percent of the seedlings planted this year and about half of a field of 1,000 two-year-old trees.

"We had a real tough year," Modlin said. "We contemplated on shutting down this year, we really did."

This year's losses put her several years behind schedule.

"It was horrible," she said.

This year's drought has caused Modlin to give up on spring planting. She said she will now only plant her Anne Arundel farm in the fall to avoid the dry heat of the summer.

Maryland had 263 Christmas tree farms in 2002, the last year with data available, and ranked 23rd in the country for number of farms, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Carroll County had 43 farms, the most in the state.

"There's a lot of concern about the drought this year," said Wayne Thomas, president of the Maryland Christmas Tree Association and owner of Thomas Tree Farm in Manchester. "Seedlings took a real hit this year."

The stress of the drought causes mature trees to shed their inner needles to survive, Modlin said.

"The customers have all noticed that they are not as lush," she said. "They are thinner now and that's what they will do to go into survival mode."

Modlin said that this year, "knowing that our crop looked the way it did, we said 'We need to do something or we need to shut our gates.'"

So she trucked in hundreds of Fraser fir trees from North Carolina, the "Cadillac" of Christmas trees, to give customers an alternative to suffering Maryland trees.

But Modlin said she has seen an influx of new customers, who tell her their regular farms have shut down due to this year's dry weather.

Other tree farmers around the state also are reporting good business despite the drought.

Ed Caporin, who irrigates all of the trees on Blue Heron Tree farm in Queen Anne's County, said he was "doing a lot better than last year. Our trees have gotten a bit bigger."

And at Good Spirits Christmas Tree Forest, Gagarine said business is still brisk despite conditions. He said the "voracious demand" for cut-your-own trees has brought customers from throughout the Washington and Baltimore metropolitan areas to his Washington County farm.

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