published Tuesday, December 24th, 2013

Green Christmas: Tree farms seeing the best of times despite rain, short buying season

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    In this file photo from 2009, Eric Shuler, a community service coordinator with Dalton Public Works, collects discarded Christmas trees from the curbside and loads them onto his truck so they can be recycled and turned into mulch.
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Green isn't just the signature color of the beloved Christmas tree — it's also what Chattanooga's fir and spruce sellers stand to rake in after a largely successful 2013 growing season.

Nationally, Christmas tree sales are up about 7 percent from 2012, according to international market research from the ISI Group.

Chattanooga's arbor farmers say they also expect good tidings -- and stuffed stockings -- after the holidays.

"People are more in spirit this year," said Doug Matheny, tree and shrub manager at The Barn Nursery on East 24th Street. "They've got a little more confidence in the economy, the stock market did better this year, people are getting savings back to where they should be and are a little looser with their money."

And with that extra spending room, perhaps, comes the decision to invest in a living, breathing Christmas tree.

Tom Sawyer's Christmas Tree Farm on Cherokee Boulevard had sold about 800 trees nearly a week before Christmas -- more than its 2012 sales altogether.

Wheeler's Choose and Cut Tree Farm of Tunnel Hill, Ga., had already passed its 2012 sales total by 150 trees on Dec. 16.

Even though Chattanooga's brief winter season has been a rainy one -- 3 inches more rain in December than average, according to the National Weather Service -- owner Kevin Wheeler said folks still were in the holiday spirit.

"For the most part, people still came out," Wheeler said. "We had people out there in the rain with umbrellas."

Burney McDowell, who founded McDowell's Big Fork Nursery on Suck Creek Mountain in 1969, had made it a long-standing policy never to grow Christmas trees.

But last year, he sold 500 of them. And this year, the 74-year-old farmer plans to have moved 1,000 by the time Santa closes up shop because his 8-foot "Norway Spruces" are cheaper to move than oaks or maples.

"Now, we have people coming all the way from Nashville and Huntsville, Ala., to get their tree," McDowell said. "We just had to find a new way to adapt. We tried pines."

McDowell sells a variety of firs: His "Charlie Brown" trees are $15, and the mightiest spruces go for $60. Sometimes, he just gives them away to low-income families in need.

The National Christmas Tree Foundation says McDowell's strategy of flexibility might be the trend saving the industry.

"If you live on the 14th floor of an old condo building in an urban setting, driving out to a lot and getting an 8-foot-tall, 50-pound tree doesn't meet your needs," said foundation spokesman Rick Dungey.

"The industry is starting to figure out that there are people out there who'd get a tree if you put more variety in front of them."

Staff writer Shelly Bradbury contributed to this story.

Contact staff writer Jeff LaFave at jlafave@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.

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