Rapid Development Is Threatening to Ax a Christmas Tradition

By Timothy Dwyer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 26, 2006

Shhh. Don't tell anyone. Jim Gehlsen opened his cut-your-own Christmas tree farm for business yesterday. But he doesn't want any customers -- at least any new ones -- coming to his Prince William County farm.

It's getting harder and harder to head out to the woods to cut a Christmas tree in the suburbs of Washington, where development has increased demand but also pushed many farmers farther away. In the past five years, three of the five cut-your-own tree farms in fast-growing Prince William have closed.

Unlike subdivisions, which seem to sprout from the land in a single construction season, Christmas trees take 10 years to grow tall enough for market. And for such growers as Gehlsen, who has been at it for 25 years, figuring out the suburban calculus of supply and demand has long been a challenge.

In the early years, he had more trees than customers and sold pumpkins to spur business. Then, in the past decade, came the region's rapid population growth. Although he has planted more and more trees each year to keep up, many won't be ready for market for another three seasons.

So as tempting as it is to load the kids in the car and come home with a sweet-smelling Scotch or white pine or a Norway spruce, unless you have been to Gehlsen's Nokesville farm before, he can't handle your holiday tree wishes.

He used to be open from the day after Thanksgiving until Christmas Eve, but this year it'll be just this weekend and the next two. He hopes to sell no more than 500 trees. Any more and he'd be cutting into the 500 that will be ready next year.

"I saw this coming," said Gehlsen, 52, a masonry contractor by trade. "I have people who have been cutting with me for as long as I have been open, and I don't want to close my doors to them. It is their tradition, and I want to keep their tradition alive."

There aren't many places left in the Washington area to keep that tradition alive. Aside from the farms in Prince William, area Christmas tree associations list two cut-your-own farms in Montgomery County, one in Prince George's County and four in Loudoun County. There also are a handful of farmers who are not members of the association.

"We require the public to come to us, and so when you have encroachment of residential housing, it makes it much harder to operate your farm, and property values have gone up so much that a number of farms in Virginia have been forced out for that very reason," said Tom O'Halloran, vice president of the Virginia Christmas Tree Growers Association. "Within a 60-mile driving radius of Washington, I think the farms have just moved out a little further."

The U.S. Census Bureau just began tracking Christmas tree farms in its last census, said Spencer Neale, a state commodities expert with the Virginia Farm Bureau, so it is difficult to know how many have disappeared in recent years.

Neale said there were 767 farms in Virginia according to the latest census, which is five years old. Maryland had 263 farms. Oregon is the largest producer of Christmas trees, followed by North Carolina. Virginia is eighth -- most of the farms are in the southwest part of the state -- and Maryland is 20th.

No one is suggesting that there is a shortage of trees. Most of the trees sold in the Washington area are shipped in from other parts of the region or country and sold in retail lots and stores.

It's just that buying a tree in the parking lot of a big-box retailer isn't quite the same as going out to the woods and sawing one down.

Suzie and Keith Evans of Nokesville have been going to Gehlsen's farm each December for about 10 years to cut their tree. Suzie said it is a family tradition that they used to share with her father before he died. Now her children are grown -- ages 17, 23 and 26 -- but they still make it a family outing. Her eldest, who is married, buys a tree for her house now.

Evans said she has noticed that in the past few years there haven't been as many trees to choose from. "We've always been able to find one, because he has such nice trees, but I've noticed there has been less selection. He's had a lot of little ones recently, but I guess that means there will be more in the future."

In three years, Gehlsen hopes to have 25,000 trees on his farm -- about 1,700 of which will be ready to sell -- because he has increased the number of plantings in the past few years. The trees are priced from $35 to $50.

For now, except for the 500 that are eight feet or taller, the rest of the 20,000 trees in his fields are too short to sell. Yet he knows that once customers come out to the farm with their children looking for a tree, they'll go into the fields and cut whichever one they want, no matter the size.

One year, he said, nuns from a local convent came out early to pick out their tree, which was then marked with police tape and signs stating that it was reserved, but someone cut it anyway.

"I went out into the field to check on it one day, and all the tape was lying on the ground," he said.

Leslie Harlan, the other remaining Christmas tree grower in Prince William, said he has a good supply of taller trees this season. "I'm all right for this year," said Harlan, who has about 300 bigger trees to sell. "Then I will be in the same boat as [Gehlsen] in about two years, because I lost a lot of seedlings to drought -- a couple thousand -- about three years ago."

Harlan said he doesn't advertise. "When I have trees, people seem to come." He'll open his Nokesville farm next weekend and remain open weekends until his supply is gone.

For this year, Gehlsen will open for business and hope for the best, which in this case, means less. He'll be watching his stock closely.

"If the trees got scarce, I'd have to close," he said. "If I get bushwhacked the first and second weekend we're open, I wouldn't want to, but I'd have to."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company