Past droughts, fewer growers impacting live Christmas tree supply in Fort Wayne area

The St. Joe Christmas Tree Farm staff replaced trees that died in the droughts in 2011 to 2013. Those replacement trees now are 3 to 4 feet tall, too short for use as a Christmas tree. (By Kevin Kilbane of News-Sentinel.com)
The St. Joe Christmas Tree Farm has brought in some pre-cut trees from Michigan to increase the supply at its farm on St. Joe Road. Droughts in 2011 to 2013 wiped out large numbers of young trees at the farm and others in the area. (By Kevin Kilbane of News-Sentinel.com)
The St. Joe Christmas Tree Farm has brought in some pre-cut trees from Michigan to increase the supply at its farm on St. Joe Road. Droughts in 2011 to 2013 wiped out large numbers of young trees at the farm and others in the area. (By Kevin Kilbane of News-Sentinel.com)

Droughts a few years ago still are being felt by Fort Wayne Christmas tree growers, who will have fewer trees again this year for people to cut down, take home and decorate.

But another factor in the shortage is the lack of local growers, said Judy Reifenberg, who with her husband, Mike, owns the St. Joe Christmas Tree Farm at 9801 St. Joe Road north of Fort Wayne.

“Farms are closing, and we are getting to be an older breed,” Judy Reifenberg said.

The closing of Christmas tree farms because of the recession in 2008 and death of young trees in droughts several years ago have led to a reported shortage of live Christmas trees nationwide, Purdue University said in a news release sent out this week. The Purdue news release also cited forest fires in the West as contributing to the shortage.

That assessment mirrors what Reifenberg has observed locally.

About 20 years ago, a combined total of more than a dozen Christmas tree growers operated in Allen County and a few adjacent counties, she said. Now only two are left in Allen County – their farm and Koontz Tree Farm, 6827 Huguenard Road.

It’s hard to supply the public’s demand when no new growers are coming on board, Reifenberg said.

For the past couple of seasons, local growers also have had to deal with a loss of trees caused by summer droughts in 2011 through 2013, she said.

The droughts don’t seem to have impacted many sales lots offering pre-cut trees, some of which get their trees from Michigan or other locations unaffected by the dry weather that caused problems locally.

“We were able to get all of the trees we ordered,” said Gary Gerke, a volunteer working with the Christmas tree sales lot at Concordia Lutheran Church, 4245 Lake Ave. The lot is a fundraiser for the church, Gerke said.

The Reifenbergs also have brought in pre-cut trees from Michigan to offset the lower supply at their farm caused by the droughts.

However, one large Christmas tree farm in Michigan and one large Christmas tree farm in Wisconsin both have closed, which has impacted the supply of pre-cut trees, Judy Reifenberg said.

At the Reifenberg’s Christmas tree farm, the drought in 2011 killed about 30 percent to 40 percent of the young trees they planted that year, she said. In 2012, they lost the young trees they replanted from the 2011 loss and many they planted in 2012. They had to replant again in 2013, she said.

It can take eight to 12 years for an evergreen tree to get to the 6 1/2-feet to 7 1/2-feet height people prefer for Christmas trees, she said, so their replanted trees now are only 3 to 4 feet tall.

Customers have been very good about coming out to enjoy the experience at the farm and then selecting a pre-cut tree if they don’t find one in the fields, Reifenberg said.

“We’ve just had really good customers,” she said. “They are helping us get through it.”

The Koontz Tree Farm lost about half of their young trees in 2012, and some older trees as well, said Joyce Koontz, who owns the farm with her husband.

They normally would have 200 to 400 trees available for people to cut down and take home, but this year they have only about 50 to 75 trees, Koontz said.

But they are open, and they hope to have plenty of trees available again in three or four years, she said.

If anyone is interested in going into the Christmas tree-growing business, Reifenberg said she and her husband would be happy to offer advice to help them get started. Other growers did the same for them when they bought their farm in 1999.

“Call us (486-4336) if they want to plant even 2 acres,” she said.

“It’s physical labor,” she added. “But it is very, very rewarding.”

She loves watching the trees grow and seeing the smiles on children and families as they pick out and take home their tree.

“It’s a memory maker,” she said.

OPEN HOURS

Here are the hours of operation for the Christmas tree farms and sales lot mentioned in this story:

• St. Joe Christmas Tree Farm, 9801 St. Joe Road: Hours 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Sundays-Fridays, and 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturdays.

• Koontz Tree Farm, 6827 Huguenard Road: Hours 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. There are no set hours on weekdays, but people can call 489-5898 to ask about coming out for a tree.

• Concordia Lutheran Church, 4245 Lake Ave.: Hours noon-9 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturdays and noon-8 p.m. Sundays.

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