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Supply, demand and Christmas trees

Jerry Stevenson has owned and operated the Glenwood Heights tree farm, just outside of Ithaca, for about 30 years.
Megan Zerez
Jerry Stevenson has owned and operated the Glenwood Heights tree farm, just outside of Ithaca, for about 30 years.

High demand for firs since the pandemic led to over harvesting at many upstate New York Christmas tree farms. Now, farmers want to sell more trees, but can't afford to cut into future crops.

The economy is still catching up with the effects of the pandemic. And New York’s small Christmas tree growers are no exception. That means the tradition of going to pick out the perfect tree has been a little different this year.

Marc Daly and his son Ace are at Glenwood Heights Christmas tree farm outside of Ithaca. It’s the week before Christmas. Ace is pulling the sled and his dad holds the saw. The two are on a mission to find and cut the perfect Christmas tree.

Ace says to him, the ideal tree is big and bushy, with no holes or bald spots.

But this year, the Dalys say it's been a bit harder to find the right tree this year.

"What do you think, Ace?" Marc says.

"I don’t think that one can fit through our door," Ace says.

This isn’t the first stop on their quest. The Dalys say the first farm they went to closed early this year.

Cornell Biologist Betsy Lamb works with tree farmers across New York State. She said the pandemic had a big effect on the Christmas tree industry. Lamb said in 2020, picking out a tree at a farm was one of the few holiday activities people could still do safely.

"People who hadn't gotten a real Christmas tree in years went out and cut a Christmas tree and then got hooked," Lamb said.

So two years ago, farmers ended up cutting more trees than usual to meet demand. And demand this year is as high as ever. But those larger harvests are starting to catch up with growers.

"This is a long term process," Lamb said. "So if you sell everything you've got that's the right size, then next year, you don't have anything to sell."

Lamb said many farmers have had to limit the number of trees they sell so that they have a crop to sell next year.

Some farmers did that by shutting down their sales really early — one had run out just 10 days after Thanksgiving. Others changed their price structure to encourage people to buy larger, older trees so that the younger trees had more time to grow.

Lamb said in an attempt to meet demand, some of the area's larger farms even bought pre-cut trees from out of state to resell.

Jerry Stevenson, the owner of Glenwood Heights farm, said he chose to turn down wholesale buyers, despite a lot of demand.

"I probably could have sold 20,000 trees wholesale this year if I had them," Stevenson said. "The number of calls I got from all over upstate New York was amazing."

Stevenson’s farm is small, just him and his wife. They both work other jobs and the farm work mostly happens on the weekends, but they’re usually able to offer a good selection of trees in the thirty or so years they've run the farm.

But Stevenson said the selection this year is a little slimmer, especially so close to the holiday.

"Two weeks ago, this whole area was full of trees," Stevenson said, gesturing at a thinned out patch of young trees. "And a lot of them were six to seven plus feet tall. And now, they're pretty much gone."

The trees that are left are about four feet on average and don't have the fullest branches. Elsewhere in the field there are also older trees, some as tall as 20 feet, though Stevenson said larger trees are always a bit harder to sell.

And unfortunately for Ace and Marc Daly, the limited selection means their perfect tree isn’t at Glenwood Heights farm.

Marc Daly says he's not giving up yet.

"There’s like three other farms we’re going to check out," Daly says.

Stevenson says everyone is looking for something a little different in their "perfect tree." And he doesn’t take it personally if they can’t find it on his farm.

Marie De Mott Grady and her family have also pulled up into the Stevensons' driveway in search of a tree.

De Mott Grady says they're looking for a smaller tree this year.

After a little bit of looking, De Mott Grady’s kids, 5-year-old Peter and 3-year-old May, have decided on a tree.

"What about that one?" Peter says, pointing at a 5-foot-tall fir on the end of a row.

It’s not the biggest tree on the farm, and it’s not the bushiest. But it’s got the stamp of approval from the kids.

Soon, the tree is cut and loaded onto a small plastic sled. Peter insists on pulling it back to the car.

"Haul it away, Peter!" De Mott Grady laughs.