Local Christmas tree farms have lost a considerable amount of business in the past 20 years in Calaveras County.
Whereas Christmas tree sales revenue used to be reported at hundreds of thousands of dollars in Calaveras County crop reports from the early 2000s, 2016 reported $20,000, and 2017, the most recent year on record, reported $8,500.
Calaveras County Agriculture Commissioner Kevin Wright attributes the sales decline to a number of factors, including unfavorable weather conditions, a shift to artificial trees and competition from commercial retailers and out-of-state vendors.
Local growers agree.
“A lot of the people that were selling trees have gone out of business,” said Charlie Anderson, owner of Anderson Christmas Tree Farm in Murphys. “Part of it is that in the last 10 years, the weather has been changing.”
The 2015 Butte Fire put multiple West Point Christmas tree farms out of business, according to Anderson.
When Anderson first started growing in the early 1990s, he didn’t have to water his trees, but that’s changed with severe droughts in recent years.
The main competition for local growers is large grocery stores, which buy entire crops at a time as early as October, rather than selecting the more expensive, premium trees just as the season starts, Anderson adds.
“It’s kind of the same as a florist – you’ll get nicer flowers there than you would at a grocery store,” he said.
Some growers have switched to grapes, a more lucrative crop, according to Anderson.
“(Growers) make very little off of Christmas trees,” Anderson said, joking that his income will pay for one quarter at a university for his daughter. “If it wasn’t fun, I’d probably switch, too.”
Cal-Sierra Tree Farm owner Yolanda Buller says that artificial trees have been a factor in declining sales over recent years.
“Naturally, artificial trees are taking a toll on the real ones,” Buller said. “Nowadays, people are busy, so they go for what takes the least amount of time. People can go to a box store, keep it a couple years. We cater to the people that are looking for the family experience. The people that come to our farms have come for four generations or more.”
Along with Anderson and Buller, Jane Alto, owner of Alto Tree Farm in West Point, is in the Christmas tree business for the traditional family experience – spending a day out on the farm picking the right tree, taking tractor rides around the property and drinking hot cocoa in the cold winter weather.
“It costs so much to pay for the property and raise the trees,” said Alto’s caregiver and friend Greg Cooper. “Twenty years ago (income from the business) paid her property taxes and her insurance. It was a pretty good business. You used to sell 500 trees in a season.”
Alto, 99, started planting nearly 50 years ago, and with the help of Cooper and other farm hands, she continues to keep the tradition alive each year taking orders in the snack shack by the lower pond on the property.
Alto’s loyal cattle dog, Max, rests at her feet as she reflects on the early years on the farm.
“It used to be that we would have many customers that came year after year after year,” Alto recalled. “We’d take pictures of them and put them on a bulletin board so when they came back they could point out their picture.”
“When you come and get your tree, it is an experience,” Cooper added. “You plan your day, you drive somewhere. The kids get excited. They get to bring their lunch, dogs, spend the day and have a picnic, go on tractor rides, play games, hike around. We’ve got indoor dining with the woodstove on. Some people get here when we open and leave when we close. It’s an experience that you can’t replace.”
Cooper and Alto lost over 150 Christmas trees and a home on the West Point property last October in the Point Fire, and weren’t able to open for the 2017 season.
Since then, they have been replanting and regrowing trees and are set to continue operations in December.