Tuesday, December 09, 2014

TOP STORY >> Christmas tree farms

Leader staff writer

Two local Christmas tree farms are integral to many deeply rooted family traditions of picking out a live fresh tree. For more than 30 years, Geisler’s Holiday Forest at 8817 Dorsey Road in northern Pulaski County and Schilling’s Family Christmas Tree Farm at 1476 Hwy. 294 near Furlow in Lonoke County have been growing and selling trees.

Geisler’s Holiday Forest is owned by Jim and Ella Geisler. They purchased Holiday Forest in 1984 from John and Becky Rissinger, who planted the first trees in 1976. The 10-acre farm has Virginia Pine, Eastern White Pine, Leyland Cypress, Eastern Red Cedar, Arizona, Blue Ice and Carolina Sapphire Cypress trees. They sell 200 to 300 trees a year.

Geisler’s tree farm has free hayrides, hot spiced tea, candy canes, tree shaking to remove needles and netting for transportation. They can also drill holes in the bottoms of trunks, if that is needed to put the trees in stands.

Schilling’s Family Christmas Tree Farm was started in 1982 by Barbara and Joe Schilling and is co-owned by their son, Brian Hibbs.

“Our customers prefer the Virginia Pine and Leland Cypress. A few want Frazier Firs we bring in from North Carolina,” Barbara Schilling said.

Schilling’s farm makes wreaths and covers trees with artificial snow. They have wagon rides and candy canes. They also shake the trees and can offer baling.

The Schillings’ 10-acre tree farm sells 800 to 1,200 trees a year.

“Customers come from all over: Hot Springs, DeValls Bluff and Batesville. The air base is a big draw,” Barbara Schilling said.

Dot Webb of England said, “I’ve been coming here for 25 years. I came with my mom, and now I’m bringing my kids. I’m just glad they’re here.”

Sarah Casey of Sherwood said, “We wanted a real Christmas tree for our baby’s first Christmas. Our friends come here, and they had a pretty tree.”

Jim Geisler is a retired forester. He said one problem Christmas tree farmers run into is they lose a lot of acreage on the edges of the farms because they are surrounded by hardwoods and pine trees. Those trees cast shade in the summer, and their roots span out to compete for water.

Geisler is able to grow a crop of Eastern White Pines on the cooler north-facing slope of his farm.

But “the White Pine has a very poor survival rate. It’s a beautiful tree, but it too hot and dry in the summer to grow south of the Arkansas River,” Geisler said.

Barbara Schilling said tree farming can be a challenging business. Trees have to grow four to five years before the first harvest. A bad batch of winter weather can affect sales.

“So far, the weather has been nice. Last year was tough with ice during the weekend. In the summer, it is a lot of work. We shear and shape the trees once in spring and once in summer,” she said.

Geisler, 75, said, “We need new younger Christmas tree growers to come in. Everyone is getting old.”

According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, the number of Christmas tree farms in the state has declined by about half — from 59 in 2007 to 29 in 2012. The number of Christmas trees farm acreage has dropped from 562 in 2007 to 227 in 2012.

“There are a few reasons for the decrease in farms in Arkansas. One is that we don’t have the climate to grow the species that people want, such as Noble, Frazier or Douglas firs,” said Tamara Walkingstick, associate director of the Arkansas Forest Resources Center.

Walkingstick said the demand for Christmas trees has decreased, too. The price of the trees has not increased, but the cost of growing has.

“It’s hard for tree growers to make money,” Walkingstick said.

Many growers have turned their tree farms into agro-tourism opportunities that include holiday photo ops, hot chocolate, petting zoos and other family friendly activities.

“Christmas tree farming isn’t a big-dollar business. Growers have to diversify and sell the whole Christmas tree experience to offset rises in the cost of growing the trees,” Walkingstick said.

Norma Patterson with Schilling’s tree farm said, “Support Arkansas farm families and try to buy from local people.”

Schilling said, “It’s a lot more fun than going to a big-box store that brings in trees.” Most of Schilling’s advertising is word of mouth and repeat customers.

She said they also allow schools and daycares to come out on field trips at no charge. They are able to the see the tree growing. Pets are welcomed but have to be on a leash.

“A real tree is the way to go,” Schilling added.

This is the last weekend for Geisler’s Holiday Forest to be open from 9 a.m. to dark on Saturday and from 1 p.m. to dark on Sunday. It also opens on weekdays by appointment by calling 501-224-3797.

The Schilling’s Family Christmas Tree Farm is open from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Monday. They will sell trees until Dec. 21, the Sunday before Christmas. Their phone number is 501-982-1046.