Subdivisions offer retiring farmers a lucrative way out
EGG HARBOR CITY, N.J. (AP) -- A line of tall pines and oaks stands with the houses that line Old River Road in Mays Landing. But just behind those trees is a 1-acre open field where thousands of what are commonly called Christmas trees grow in varying sizes.
And in Egg Harbor Township, a patch of growing Christmas trees is visible to drivers traveling on West Jersey Avenue, just a mile from the Shore Mall. While the immediate neighborhood is relatively rural, a few blocks away there are large residential subdivisions.
At one time, these small Christmas tree farms, most just an acre or three of carefully sculpted trees that have market value just a few weeks of the year, were much more common in southern New Jersey. In the 1980s and early 1990s, there were nearly 50 small tree farms in Atlantic County, said Charlie Dupras, a former Atlantic County extension agent and Mays Landing tree farmer.
But farmers aged and other family members were uninterested in taking over the businesses. With the price of land skyrocketing, many Christmas tree farmers sold their properties. Dupras said he estimates that at least 50 percent to 60 percent of the small tree farms in Atlantic County have gone out of business.
"The way life is, there aren't too many people who want to have a full-time job and then come home to care for 4 to 5 acres of trees," he said.
A 2007 agricultural census for New Jersey found 884 Christmas tree farms with total annual sales of $2.5 million. Of those farms, nearly all were less than 50 acres; 334 were between 1 and 9 acres. The census is published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which puts out the report every five years. New Jersey produced nearly 79,000 trees in 2007, a 41 percent decline from the previous census published in 2002.
The signs leading to Dupras Evergreen Acres are white with green lettering, evoking whimsy and Christmas cheer. There are just five parking spaces and only a fraction of the 3,000 trees are marked for sale. The air is silent, except for wind rustling through the upper canopies of tall pines bordering the field and the occasional truck blasting down Mays Landing-Somers Point Road.
Charlie and Michael Dupras, father and son, have sold Christmas trees on this plot since Michael was a child in the early 1970s. As part of his outreach to Atlantic County residents who wanted some type of small agricultural business, Charlie Dupras, 84, encouraged them to plant Christmas trees.
As long as the land drained, the trees would thrive with a little care, fertilizer and seasonal pruning. The Dupras tree farm makes enough money to compensate for the years of labor, but the farm is mainly for enjoyment, Michael Dupras said.
The youngest tree on the Dupras farm is just 4 years old, the oldest is at least 14 years old, said Michael Dupras, 51, who has a day job as an environmental scientist for a consulting firm.
Each year, a fraction of the trees are marked for sale to keep the young portion of the crop sustainable. The goal isn't to expand -- they added a half-acre of trees about 25 years ago -- but rather to sustain, Dupras said.
Ed and Krista Muller have purchased their Christmas tree from the Dupras farm for years. They live about a mile away and enjoy making the tree hunt a family event with Ava, their 5-year-old daughter.
"We like the fact that this is close to home and it's a family business," Ed Muller said. "I like to be able to come out and pick my tree than go to a lot where they have them already cut. It has a more personal feel to it."
Just down the road from the Shore Mall is Bill and Carol Hulanick's 3-acre Christmas tree farm. The Hulanicks have been selling trees from their land at the corner of West Jersey Avenue and Walnut Avenue since 1980, when they purchased the property. There were trees growing and they thought it would be a nice way to supplement their income.
Now, Bill Hulanick said, the money they make from selling 50 or 60 trees each year just helps offset increasing taxes. But now the work to maintain the trees is growing tiresome, he said.
A onetime specialist for an electric company, he has been without a full-time job for several years and he is ready to retire to Florida, where there is warm weather and lower taxes. When asked about his future plans, he smiles and notes that his property is just a few feet from a sewer main. One day, when land prices rise and developers return, he plans to subdivide the property for houses.
There used to be about 15 tree farms within a two-mile radius of Mark and Sue Newcomb's Ponderosa Christmas Tree Farm, but now there are just three, Mark Newcomb said. His is the largest -- a 52-acre farm with 15 acres of trees. He and Sue work the farm full-time now. Every Christmas season, they truck in more than a thousand trees from as far as Nova Scotia and the North Carolina mountains to supplement the 400 to 700 trees they will sell that came from their land.
Tree sales the Sunday after Thanksgiving were moving quickly.
The sound of chain saws was nearly constant and the smell of sweet pine filled the air.
A lone pony waited in a stall for children to ride it and there was a food truck selling hot dogs and other snacks. Out in the field, where hundreds of trees of varying heights and thicknesses stood, some had tags and ribbons on them, indicating they were for sale or already sold.
The choose-and-cut part of the business started Nov. 15, when area residents flocked to the farm to mark which tree they want. By the beginning of December, just three weeks after tagging began, there are few, if any, left, Newcomb said.
Kim Gray was walking around the white pines at Ponderosa with her two children, husband and massive dog Sunday afternoon. The Egg Harbor Township family had been coming to the Newcombs' farm for their tree for about seven years and typically come for the first tagging weekend.
By Sunday, the selection was rather thin, but they still expected to find the right tree for them. "The kids love it, walking around outside, picking a tree," she said.
Many customers who come to the family-owned farms are repeats who have developed their own traditions. As farms close down, those customers tend to go to the remaining farms.
Jackie Armstrong, of Egg Harbor Township, had been going to a tree farm near Ponderosa, but when she, her husband and two children arrived Sunday afternoon, they found it had gone out of business.
"I think he retired," she said. Armstrong had been going to that farm since she was a child and was disappointed. And because it was well into tagging season at Ponderosa, she said the family wasn't able to find one they wanted.
Michael Dupras said many of his customers return every year, which is a source of joy for his family as they catch up with people they may see only once a year.
"A lot of the people that come here are like extended family for us," he said. "We see the customers who came here as children are now adults and bringing their own children."