Despite a withering drought and an uncertain economy, Matthew Gay has full confidence in the 2011 Christmas tree season.
“We’ve done this 13 years and this will be our 10th year selling,” said the owner of Gay’s Christmas Tree Farm on Tobacco Road.
Hot weather and lack of rain has challenged growers who specialize in choose-and-cut trees, he said. “We do have irrigation, and this year we used it more.”
Species that can grow in the South, such as leland cypress, can become susceptible to drought-induced diseases, including a fungus known as cercospora. However, prompt care and steady watering can minimize the damage.
Although many areas outside Georgia have suffered from drought, the national supply chain for pre-cut trees is vast and widely scattered, making regional weather patterns unlikely to cause a shortage or loss of quality, said Rick Dungey of the National Christmas Tree Association, headquartered in Missouri.
Choose-and-cut farms account for about 20 percent of the trees sold each holiday season, with cut trees comprising most of the remainder.
“In terms of prices, though, there is no way in the world to predict anything in terms of numbers,” he said. “There are too many variables – size, species, grade, where it came from and even pricing structures that can be a flat rate, by the foot or by the species.”
Droughts and other short term weather patterns might harm seedlings planted before a dry spell, but trees being cut will be at least five years old or older, he said. “Seasonal patterns just don’t affect those trees as much as seedlings or annual crops.”
In Augusta, growers like Gay typically manage small tracts that can be intensively cultivated. Gay’s five acres include 5,000 to 6,000 live trees of varying ages.
“We grow leland cypress, murray cypress and Carolina sapphire,” he said. The family also imports cut trees, usually from North Carolina.
In 2007, the most recent year for which a complete U.S. Agriculture Census is available, Georgia had 2,359 acres planted in Christmas trees, ranking 23rd in the nation in total acreage. The state was ranked 22nd in the number of trees harvested, with 50,607, the report said.