Demand for trees strong as Christmas season opens

With no end in sight for the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it seems that many Americans have been turning to a holiday tradition — Christmas trees — more than in years past.

Wholesale tree farmers and small cut-your-own tree lots have been reporting a strong demand for Christmas trees, with many farms having opened prior to Thanksgiving across the United States, according to the Associated Press.

Christmas tree farms say they’ve seen more people earlier than ever, which many attribute to Americans staying home for the holiday season with pandemic restrictions in place.

Locally in western Massachusetts, that national trend is no exception. Farms in Hadley, Hatfield, Ashfield and Belchertown have all reported a larger number of Christmas tree sales just a day or two after they’ve opened for the season, which typically runs from Thanksgiving to Christmas Day.

Bob Schrader, owner of Chestnut Mountain Christmas Tree Farm in Hatfield, has been growing and selling Christmas trees on about 30 acres on his 133-acre farm for the past decade.

Right now, there’s about 30,000 trees on his property. Most trees take about eight or nine years to grow to maturity, leaving about 5,000 trees to sell to customers this year.

“In general, our business is up about 25% this year,” he said, adding that he sold 400 trees this past Friday, which was a “pretty busy day.”

Harry Swift, a worker at Chestnut Mountain, said on Sunday that the day prior they also sold at least 400 trees.

Schrader said he thinks it’s hard to say whether cut-your-own trees are in more demand this year because of the pandemic. But one thing’s for sure — his tree business is booming right now.

“Everybody’s all cooped up with the pandemic and looking to get out and do family stuff,” he added. “You can’t travel and you can’t do a whole lot of things. I think there is an increase in demand this year.”

Schrader started the business after retiring from the University of Massachusetts’ outreach educational program for the Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment, where he worked for 35 years.

“I wanted to have a farm to retire to and have another run at things and I found this place,” he added. “It had previously grown Christmas trees. There were a lot of overgrown Christmas trees on the property and so we just began planting new Christmas trees and went from there.”

Marisa Fitzpatrick, a resident of Hopkinton, was looking for a Christmas tree on Sunday along with her 8-year-old daughter Kinley Axford. They usually buy their tree near the Boston area, but decided to take an almost hour and a half drive to Chestnut Mountain.

“We drove out here just to get our tree,” Fitzpatrick said. “Figured it would be less crowded.”

Chicopee resident Elizabeth Brunault brought her three sons and father, Ruben Santana, to Chestnut Mountain on Sunday to cut down their own Christmas tree. For their family, it’s a yearly tradition that was different last year as well with her children’s father being deployed overseas in Kuwait.

Brunault’s middle son — Zackariah Santana — is autistic and non-verbal. The experience for him at the farm was a positive one on Sunday, Brunault said.

“He’s doing well,” she added. “The really open space and the fact that it’s not chaotic are ideal. Also, it’s great that he can touch the trees because he likes these tactile experiences.”

Emma Betters and her partner, Hollie Betters, of Northampton spoke Sunday while their daughter Camdyn DeFranco tied up their Christmas tree on top of their SUV. This was their second year returning to Chestnut Mountain.

“They make it an experience for you,” Hollie Betters said. “They made it feel very normal. The only difference is the masks this year.”

Family business

Zaskey Christmas Tree Farm in Hadley is a multigenerational family operated business that traces its roots back to 1910. The current owner, Bill Zaskey, grew up working on the farm (which previously grew tobacco) alongside his father and grandfather. In 1980, he and his father started planting Christmas trees, which they started selling nine years later.

Now, three generations of Zaskeys work at the 100 acre farm. Seventy of those acres are in conservation, while the remaining 30 acres are planted with 1,500 to 2,000 trees.

“With Christmas trees, it was my father and me and now our two daughters along with their husbands,” Zaskey said. “We’ve got four grandchildren that are up on the farm there on land that my father had given them. They’re the ones who help out with the Christmas tree operation now. It’s been an enjoyable experience. It’s something that my father had always hoped — that the kids would take care of the farm operation.”

Zaskey said the farm opened for the season on Friday, when they sold 46 trees.

Bob Cullen, Bill Zaskey’s son-in-law, mentioned on Sunday that the farm was “twice as busy this weekend than we were last year.”

The business has seen a higher demand for cut-your-own trees this year, Bill Zaskey said. But he’s also noticed that customers are more enthusiastic about cutting their own trees.

“I think this is the period of time that allows everybody to celebrate somewhat, even if they’re doing so individually with families apart,” he noted. “You still feel that Christmas spirit is important to carry on during this time.”

‘Too busy’

On Sunday morning, phone calls from customers were nearly non-stop for Dave Radebaugh, owner of Radebaugh’s Christmas Tree Farm in Belchertown. He’s owned the business for more than 50 years and this is the first year he decided to accept credit cards.

“I am just swamped,” he said, just two days after opening for the season at the 18-acre farm with 20,000 trees. On opening day Friday, the business sold about 300 trees.

As for whether the pandemic played a role in the higher demand for Christmas trees at his farm, he’s unsure.

“Tell people to stop coming,” he added. “It’s too busy.”

Seth Cranston is the co-owner of Cranston’s Christmas Tree Farm in Ashfield alongside his brother Jonathan Cranston. Both took over the family farm from their parents in 2018. The family started selling trees in 1989.

At the 170-acre farm there’s approximately 30 acres dedicated to growing 30,000 Christmas trees in various stages of growth, he said.

This year and the year prior, the business opened a week prior to Thanksgiving on a limited basis. Their grand opening was Friday, when they sold about 300 trees.

“We did see sales increase over last year on that same weekend, ” Seth Cranston said. “It was partially people wanting to get their tree and avoid the crowds.”

Cranston has seen a doubling over the years for cut-your-own trees, which resulted in the farm scaling back its wholesale Christmas tree stock.

He thinks for this year, the pandemic has resulted in an increase for cut-your-own trees, but also believes Pioneer Valley residents want to support their local businesses.

“We have seen large growth in our choose and cut operation,” he said. “People want the experience. They want to choose their own tree as they cut it down. This year, what we’ve seen so far is that trend continuing where people want to come out with their family, enjoy the experience of being outside, of choosing that perfect tree for themselves and knowing that they’ve cut it down or it’s as fresh as possible.”