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Christmas tree farms struggle with dry weather

12:29 PM, Sep 17, 2012   |    comments
(Judy Keen, USA TODAY) Doug Miller, owner of the Holiday Hill Christmas Tree Farm in Terre Haute, Ind., shows a pine tree killed by the drought.
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By Judy Keen, USA TODAY

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. -- Spotting the dead trees on Doug and Lori Miller's Christmas tree farm is easy: Needles on the foot-high seedlings he planted in March are completely brown.

The Millers planted 750 pine and fir seedlings. They have lost 384 of them.

Most of the fatalities were fir trees, Doug Miller says. His Scotch pines survived, and half of his white pines made it. The survivors will be decorated in area living rooms in six or seven years.

He'll plant a new batch of seedlings -- 3 years old instead of these 2-year-old seedlings that were hammered first by an April freeze, then by the drought.

"These trees really need moisture, especially in the heat," he says, adding that temperatures this summer soared into the 100s too many times.

Overall, Indiana Christmas trees lost about 10% of their trees this year and 50-90% of their seedlings, but growers say they have adequate holiday supplies.

Rick Dungey of the National Christmas Tree Association says shoppers across the nation will have no trouble finding trees. "Every single year, somebody has a dry summer," he says.

"Mortality among seeds is common even in the best of conditions," Dungey says.

About 30 million Christmas trees are purchased each year. Oregon and North Carolina usually are the top-producing states, Dungey says.

More mature trees on the Millers' Holiday Hill Christmas Tree Farm, 4atree.com, came through the drought fine. Doug Miller says he'll have plenty of trees for sale this winter.

The drought had one benefit: fewer pests that attack the trees.

David Brentlinger, owner of Star Tree Farm in West Terre Haute, has had a terrible year. He planted 800 seedlings and lost 780 of them, he says.

Brentlinger will plant more trees, but the losses mean a financial hit in a business where big profits are rare. "I tell people it takes $30 to grow a $20 tree," he says.

Brentlinger also will have trees for sale come Christmas.

"I still have lots of trees, and I'll sell maybe 300 of them," he says, "but the drought affected more mature trees, too. It killed some of them as well."

He'll keep trying, he says, because "the Christmas tree business is a labor of love."

That's the way the Millers feel as well. Both have full-time jobs. Doug, 45, works for a school district, and Lori, 45, works for an accountant.

Growing and selling trees is their passion. They have owned the tree farm since 2000 and have turned the tree-buying season into a family tradition, offering hot chocolate and horse rides to customers.

The Millers say they are lucky they have a diverse crop of trees instead of just growing firs, which are increasingly popular. Fir seedlings are more expensive at $2 each instead of 50 cents each for pine seedlings and were more susceptible to dry conditions.

"We won't plant all firs in the future," Lori Miller says. Their profits go to college funds for their three children.

In 2010, they had to burn 200 trees that were infected with diplodia tip blight, a fungal disease.

It's a reminder, Doug Miller says, "that we're not in control."

USA TODAY

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