MANCHESTER – The Thomas Tree Farm did not officially open for the season until last weekend, but Wayne Thomas said he sold his first Christmas tree this year on Oct. 28 — almost two months before Christmas Day.
While October is still a bit unusual for a Christmas tree purchase in Maryland, cut-your-own Christmas tree sales are not: State officials said that over the past decade, the number of tree growers and the value of choose-and-cut sales has risen steadily.
“It’s a small market, but it’s a lucrative market,” said Ray Garibay, a statistician for the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
The number of farmers in the state attests to that fact. Garibay said there are now 292 Christmas tree growers in the state, both wholesale and choose-and-cut.
While Maryland does not rank among the top Christmas tree growing states, it brings in about $2.5 million from the trees each year, much of that from cut- your-own farms like Thomas’.
“We’ve seen a growth in the industry and that is a direct result of the need to find niche marketing by Maryland producers,” Garibay said.
The need for niche marketing is driven by the relative scarcity of land in the state, while its success is driven by the large population concentrated in the Baltimore-Washington area, he said.
Thomas, who has about 25,000 trees and seedlings on his 85-acre farm in northern Carroll County, said more and more customers these days are showing up early and bringing the whole family along for a Christmas-tree outing.
“People can make a little family excursion out of it,” he said. “It’s an excuse for them to pack a picnic lunch.”
It is one example of what officials call “ag tourism” — niche markets to serve families that want an affordable way to spend time together outdoors.
Thomas, who belongs to the 107-member Maryland Christmas Tree Association, said he sells about 2,000 trees in a typical year. On a busy day, he and his wife, Marian, will sell about 400 trees.
“We’re hoping for a little bit more this year,” he said.
Thomas attributes the success of the choose-and-cut Christmas tree business in Maryland to the desire of families to spend time together and to make sure they are getting a fresh product.
The Schmelyuns are one such family. Although they usually wait until this weekend to cut down their tree, the Manchester family decided to celebrate Christmas at the same time as Thanksgiving this year, since the extended family was going to be together for the first time in 10 years.
So last week found the Schmelyuns trudging up a hill at the Thomas Tree Farm, dragging their freshly cut Christmas tree along behind them.
“We usually come the Friday after” Thanksgiving, said Kathy Schmelyun as she closely watched her young son Dhane.
Thomas said he is happy to sell his trees any time of the year.
“We’re farmers, and we’re here all the time,” he said. “If somebody comes in June and wants a Christmas tree, they’re welcome to it.”
And at this time of year, he said, very little will keep a family from making the trip to find their tree. Snowy days increase his business, as the white Christmas atmosphere draws holiday lovers from all around the county.
Even gloomy weather doesn’t them, he said. Families will still come “even if it’s pouring rain,” Thomas said.
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