CLIMAX, Mich. (Battle Creek Enquirer) - Don Schultz has seen some of the 8-year- old Christmas trees turn brown and die this year. The Gusty Farms owner said his trees haven't had much rain in four months.
The drought is to blame. And it may have found another victim - local holiday traditions.
Every winter, the Climax resident decorates his cottage and takes out the old tractor with a trailer, a favorite among the visiting children. His wife makes homemade cookies for their customers, some of whom
faithfully return every year to cut their own trees, he said. But after a record-breaking dry summer and more than 20 years of hard labor, Schultz said he might be ready to wrap up his career as a Christmas tree farmer.
"It's kind of convincing to quit doing this," he said. "I'm 62. And you plant a tree that takes 10 years. I might want to be in Florida in 10 years."
Christmas tree farmers around the county are struggling with the repercussions of the area's bone-dry conditions - the worst and
largest nationwide drought since the 1950s. While some seedlings planted this spring are doomed, trees that have been growing for five years or more are dying. Certain types of trees, such as the Fraser Fir, are being hit particularly hard. Bruce Wilson, 56, said he planted more
than 3,000 small trees this spring at his farm in Convis Township.
"We totally lost all of them," he said.
Some of his older trees that were as tall as 10 feet also were lost this year, he said. W ilson has grown Christmas trees for 25 years.
Jill O'Donnell, a Michigan State University Extension educator who works with Christmas tree farmers throughout the state, said the drought has affected this year's plantings the most - but consumers
may not have to deal with the effects until years from now.
"Growers are on a rotation," said O' Donnell, "The average (of trees) coming into the market is seven to eight years after planting. So you're not going to really see that until that time."
But farmers could make up for this year's losses by planting twice as many seedlings next year, she said, which would offset any impact.
O'Donnell said tree growers in southern Michigan are being hit particularly hard. While farms in northern parts of the state have irrigation systems, many of the local tree farms in Calhoun County are "choose and cut" farms. Those farms, such as Schultz's, are small and do not have installed irrigation.
Michigan ranks third in Christmas tree production in the United States. Estimates suggest the business contributes more than $40 million to the state economy every year, O'Donnell said.
"It's just one of those components that make Michigan a great agricultural state," she said. "We have a great diversity of agriculture. It's just one of those components that make Michigan unique."
O'Donnell said the drought is unlikely to change the cost of trees this winter.
"I don't think that it will mean much for prices," she said. "Typically Christmas tree growers are trying to provide quality trees at pretty consistent prices. In talking with growers, they won't be seeing much different than in years past."
Nearly 30 percent of Michigan is in drought and about 60 percent of the state is suffering from "abnormally dry" conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. And although Calhoun County's drought was
downgraded from severe to moderate this week, Battle Creek has only had about 14 inches of rain since January - about 9 inches less than what the city experienced by this time last year, according to a daily
climate report by the National Weather Service.
Sharon Robinson, manager of Olie's Tree Farm in Marshall, said she is hopeful the drought won't hit the Christmas tree business too hard.
"I think everything will be fine," she said. "It will be in time. We just got to wait it out. Until then, trees are going to look real stressed."
Still, success isn't easy even without drought conditions, Wilson said. He said he anticipates losing at least some of the 3,000 to 5,000 trees he plants on his 65-acre farm annually.
"The Christmas tree industry is not where you stick trees in the ground and 10 years from now, you're just loaded," he said.
"That doesn't happen at all. The Christmas tree business is quite hard. There's a lot of labor. There's a lot of work."
But Wilson said he isn't quitting the business any time soon.
"I plan on being here," he said. "I'm not going anywhere."
For others, however, the drought may have won the fight.
"It's not like I wouldn't like to continue to make people happy during Christmas," said Schultz. "But, you know. Things come and go."
By Jennifer Bowman, Battle Creek Enquirer