11/16/07 — Christmas tree woes

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Christmas tree woes

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on November 16, 2007 2:04 PM

MOUNT OLIVE -- Brownie Souther-land lost most of what he planted this year, and the crop that did survive is underdeveloped.

But once Thanksgiving rolls around, Christmas tree farmers simply do not have the luxury of waiting for the rain that did not fall this summer to finally come and give their product a boost.

"Santa Claus is coming whether we're ready or not," Southerland said.

So Saturday, the Beautancus Christmas Tree Farm proprietor will open for business for the 28th straight holiday season.

His trees might not measure up quite like they did last year, but neither are anyone else's, he said.

"All of us are dry," Southerland said. "We've got some good trees here, but there won't be many seven to eight footers out there. Those trees that were supposed to be seven to eight feet, they're still only about four or five. They've been real slow."

A member of the Eastern North Carolina Christmas Tree Growers' Association, Southerland said the same is true across the state -- trees that were planted years ago are OK, but this year's crop suffered.

And even though it will be "obvious" that many of the trees moving off his lot are underdeveloped, the 75-year-old said the real impact of this summer's record drought will be seen four or five Christmases from now.

"If you don't give it a drink of water, it will die," Southerland said. "We'll see it down the road. All across the state, we have really been set back."

Most farmers plant annually to keep up with a rotation that offers a variety of tree sizes each year, he added.

But when "around 90 percent" of those planted this year died, it became clear that in a few years, the number of trees available statewide would fall short, Southerland said.

"In ideal conditions, I can turn one around in three years," he said. "But in 28 years now, this is the driest year I can remember. With all the trees that didn't make it now, we lost at least a good year and possibly more."

So if you take the trip to Beautancus -- or any other Christmas tree farm -- don't expect to find the perfect seven footer, Southerland said.

Drought spares no crop.

Not even for Santa Claus.