The phone call from a despondent Paeonian Springs Christmas tree farmer came in to the Loudoun forester's office in early June.
The hapless farmer had bought a lot and planted five acres in Christmas trees. It was to have been his first crop.
But by early June, most of his Christmas tree seedlings were dead or dying, said Dana Malone, the Loudoun-area forester with the Virginia Department of Forestry who took the call.
"He asked me to come over and give him a prognosis," Malone said. "It looked pretty grim. It would be a disaster to have planted a new Christmas tree farm this year."
On Christmas tree farms throughout Loudoun and Fauquier counties, the death toll for seedlings--typically 6 inches to 2 feet tall when planted--is estimated to be as high as 80 percent, forestry and agricultural experts said.
Christmas tree farmers usually plant their seedlings early--aiming to get everything in the ground by mid-April--so root systems have time to get established before summer's hot, dry weather. But planting on time--or even early--has meant little the last few years.
Tom O'Halloran, president of the Virginia Christmas Tree Growers Association and a tree farmer in Culpeper County for 20 years, called the die-off of seedlings the last two years a "terrible problem."
"The earlier you can get them in the ground, the more likely they are to get established before the drought hits," O'Halloran said. "But this year and last year the drought came real early. We had plenty of rain within the last couple of weeks, but they're already dead."
Loudoun's 60 tree farmers sell 40,000 to 50,000 trees a year for about $25 each, mostly in "choose and cut" operations, according to James Clarke, president of the Loudoun Valley Christmas Tree Growers Association and a member of the state association's board of directors.
Clarke said he planted about 1,500 Scotch pine seedlings on his Melody Farm in southern Loudoun and lost nearly all of them. The initial outlay isn't huge--seedlings cost $85 to $120 per 1,000--but the loss is calculated in time, effort and anticipated profit. In a typical year, Clarke, a veteran of two decades in the Christmas tree business, aims to sell about 1,500 trees through his choose and cut outfit and another 1,500 or so wholesale. He said he likes to keep about 30,000 trees in the ground at a time.
Last week, Clarke said he was trying to retain his usual upbeat outlook even though he faces another year of dreary news. "Things could be worse," he said.
Just a few years ago, Clarke reported brisk sales--up as much as 50 percent from 1996 to 1997--and he was encouraging newcomers to go into Christmas tree farming to help meet the demand. He stands by his prediction about demand.
"Every year, we have the people who have the Christmas tree lots along the road, and they run low on trees and will come out and [we'll] give them another 50 or 100 trees," Clarke said.
But, eventually, consumers will face Christmas tree sticker shock, although crop losses of the last two years aren't expected to drive up retail prices for another four years, when trees that died last summer would have been mature enough to have sold. Seedlings are ready to go to market about six years after being planted.
Louis Nichols said that when it was time to plant seedlings in the spring, he just couldn't take the thought of another rotten year. So he didn't bother putting his seedlings in the ground.
Instead, Nichols, who uses about 100 acres of his 175-acre Bellwether Farm near Purcellville for his Christmas tree crop, planted 3,500 seedlings in pots and put them on a plastic lining in his back yard. He rigged an irrigation system, and occasionally he adds fertilizer to the system's water lines. In the fall--when he hopes that rain will begin to fall regularly again--he'll transplant them.
"I just thought, 'I'm just sick of losing this stuff,' " said Nichols, agriculture development officer for Loudoun's Department of Economic Development and past president of the Virginia Christmas Tree Growers. "I had about a 60 percent loss last year, and I thought, 'Enough's enough.' "