Every day since the trees were planted has been a roll of the dice.
Unlike crops like corn and soybeans, which Wyckoff grows on another 90 acres he owns, there is no good way to insure Christmas trees against damage caused by extreme weather, or the effects of a war on abroad or a pandemic that freezes supply chains. , he added.
“Farmers are the biggest gamblers there are,” Wyckoff, 57, said. His family has been growing Christmas trees in Belvidere, NJ, about a 90-minute drive from Midtown Manhattan, since his grandfather started the business in the 1950s.
Christmas trees grow slowly, about 12 to 14 inches per year, and can take 10 years to go from seed to harvest. Most of the trees he plants are 3 to 5 years old when he buys them from nurseries.
To keep up with costs, Wyckoff raised the price of his trees this year to $15 a foot, or $105 for a seven-foot tree, up from $14 last year. Ten years ago, similar trees sold for $10 a yard, he said. The trees he sells include the popular Fraser fir, Norway spruce, and Canaan and Douglas firs.
Despite the risks, the trees remain Mr. Wyckoff’s most profitable crop. He expects to sell 7,000 this year, up from 5,000 last year.
“We are currently in a boom period,” said Tim O’Connor, executive director of the National Christmas Tree Association. Supply was tight before the pandemic, then demand soared for trees that customers could harvest and cut themselves outdoors.
According to the latest available federal data, in 2017 there were 15,000 Christmas tree plantations nationwide with a turnover of more than $376 million. Bert Cregg, a horticulture professor at Michigan State University and an industry expert, said farmers can make a 50 percent profit on each tree. Mr. Wyckoff said his profit was closer to 20 percent per tree.
Some costs have increased significantly for Wyckoff’s Christmas Tree Farm. Nearly all of Mr. Wyckoff’s equipment runs on diesel fuel; This year he paid $4.70 a gallon, compared to $2.36 in 2018.
Climate change increases the risk of losing huge portions of trees. Of the 10,000 planted this year, 5,500 were lost to drought and floods. This cost him at least $27,500. In a typical year it might lose 5 to 10 percent of its new trees.
The work is incessant. The farm has three full-time employees but a rotating cast of up to 40 seasonal workers during peak periods. Three large lawnmowers ($20,000 each) cut down weeds each season, trees are pruned twice a year, and pests and diseases are monitored daily.
Mr. Wyckoff said he saved money by hiring high school students, getting help from local hunters and recruiting family members. His wife, Leslie, does the accounting, his aunt Judy loves to mow and his 23-year-old son, Johnny, also works on the farm.
The family’s trees have won awards in national competitions and have adorned the White House, Wyckoff said. The family met Michelle Obama and former Vice President Mike Pence and his wife.
While Wyckoff and industry experts have some concerns about the risk of another recession if demand declines, business is good for now.
Hector Ruiz, 75, recently set out from Stuyvesant Town in Manhattan in search of a Fraser fir. He walked away with a tree less than 5 feet tall. Most of the larger ones were sold out.
“But I’ll be back for those trees right there,” he said, pointing to the fir trees still in the ground and reserved for next year.
Produced by Eden Weingart, Andrea Hinderaker and Dagny Salas. Development of Gabriele Gianordoli AND Aliza Aufrichtig.