For many families, once the Tupperware lids snap shut on the leftover turkey, dressing and cranberry sauce and they are safely stowed in the fridge, thoughts turn to Christmas — specifically, to getting a Christmas tree.
And while many will buy that tree at one of the myriad lots and stores offering them, some will prefer to cut down their own tree. On the north shore, rather than tramp out into a snowy forest, some holiday lumberjacks traditionally have gone to Country Pines Christmas Tree Farm in Covington.
Not this year, though.
This year, most of the farm’s trees already have been felled — not by saw-wielding holiday shoppers but by Mother Nature.
“This is the first year the trees died from too much rain,” farm owner Jim Sharp said.
During the spring, repeated heavy rains caused a condition like root rot, he said. Entire rows of Christmas trees were lost.
And then in the fall, the trees that were left have been harmed by weather that’s too dry, he said. Many of the remaining trees are stunted or brown, or otherwise not fit to be sold.
In a normal year, the farm sells between 800 and 1,000 trees, Sharp said. This year, there are fewer than 100 that could be sold, he said.
So Sharp, along with his son Neal, who is in the process of taking over the farm, decided not to open this year for the first time in Country Pines’ 34-year existence.
The decision was not an easy one.
“We debated it for two or three weeks,” Neal Sharp said. They considered opening for just one weekend and trying to sell the little bit of inventory they had, but they finally decided against it.
“We decided to try and preserve what we have and open fully next year,” Neal Sharp said.
They announced their decision on Facebook, prompting an outpouring of emoji-laden reactions. Of those who chose words rather than frowny faces to express their disappointment, many commented on how they looked forward to coming to the farm every year.
“This breaks my heart,” one commenter wrote.
Others offered to pray for better weather and healthier trees in 2015.
Although this is the first time in 34 years that the farm won’t open, the Sharps have proved their durability. When they opened the farm, there were 17 Christmas tree farms in the Covington area. That number has since been trimmed to two, Jim Sharp said.
The other surviving farm — Tiger Branch Christmas Trees — is open for business this year, according to an answering recording at the number listed for the farm. Another, Shady Pond Tree Farm in Pearl River, is also open, according to its website.
The decline in Christmas tree farms has occurred not just in St. Tammany Parish but around the state and region. According to records from the LSU AgCenter’s website, in 2004, there were 78 producers in Louisiana that sold 27,730 trees. By 2013, that number had dropped by about half: 35 Christmas tree producers sold 15,990 trees.
The industry has definitely contracted, said Mike Buchart, executive secretary of the Southern Christmas Tree Association, a trade organization that brings together growers in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Hawaii. When the organization was formed decades ago, there may have been as many as 600 growers across the three states that form the heart of its territory. Now, the website lists fewer than 50, with a handful of others set to come online in the next few years.
The industry is “lean,” Buchart said.
Many growers have been chased out of the business by the labor-intensive nature of Christmas tree farming, he said.
“It’s the amount of work that has made it difficult for people,” he said. “People thought they could make easy money on this. Then reality came in, and they got out of it.”
When most people have put Christmas in the rear-view mirror, farmers already have to be out getting ready for next year, transplanting trees and checking the health of their stock. The trees are trimmed twice a year, and when you are talking about an average farm size of 8 to 12 acres, that’s a lot of trimming, including in the summer heat, Buchart said.
Also, in recent years, government support for developing new breeds of trees that are disease-resistant and grow in Southern climes has dried up, meaning growers often rely on one another for improvements in farming technology or technique, he said.
What happened at Country Pines is not a widespread problem, Buchart said, but it can happen, especially with Leyland cypress, which makes up about 40 percent of Country Pines’ inventory.
“Their roots are affected by moisture,” he said.
For Neal Sharp, the shutdown has been instructive but not necessarily discouraging.
“Based on the comments I have seen, I am looking to expand and plant more trees than I have for the last few years,” he said.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.