Clark's Tree Farm, Tiverton
Once upon a time, Christmas trees were a big business in Rhode Island.
Tree farming boomed here in the 1960s and ’70s, partly thanks to a generous federal tax break that let farmers write off their expenses to offset other income. And when they did make a profit from tree sales, it was taxed as a capital gain.
At the same time, officials here in Rhode Island were encouraging dairy farmers to use pasture land to grow trees. The state Taxation of Farm, Forest, and Open Space Land Act also gave the industry a boost when it was enacted in 1980.
But Congress eliminated the federal tax break in 1986, and the Christmas tree industry has been shrinking locally ever since.
The number of farmers belonging to the Rhode Island Christmas Tree Growers Association, which peaked at nearly 150 in 1980, has now fallen to about 40, said Eric Watne, the group’s president. The Department of Environmental Management counted 34 active tree farms in Rhode Island this year.
The farmers who are still around are a hardy bunch, though.
In recent years they’ve seen a resurgence in sales as more shoppers embrace the buy-local movement. Watne, who bought Clark’s Tree Farm in Tiverton in 2003, said he sold all 400 or so trees he had this year, boosting his revenue 15% compared with last Christmas. They sold for $40 to $50 on average.
“From what I’ve heard from other growers as well, folks have been getting cleaned out,” he said.
Clark’s and Henry’s Christmas Tree Farm in Cranston are Rhode Island’s two oldest Christmas tree farms; both opened in the late 1950s. They inherited the honor after Coventry’s Horatio Chase died last year.
“It’s great – it’s fun,” said Watne, who runs Clark’s with his wife, Catherine. “By Christmas we’re exhausted.”
Rhode Island’s agricultural sector has seen a big revival over the past decade, with the number of farms in the state jumping 42% between 2002 and 2007. But the so-called “green” agriculture industry – nurseries, tree farms and other “non-edible floriculture” – has lagged food providers, according to Ken Ayars, chief of the state’s Division of Agriculture.
“Another issue with the Christmas tree growers is that generally it’s a part-time occupation, and they are getting older,” he said. “There’s not so many new farmers coming into the business, which is problematic for them.”
Still, Ayars thinks “a slow resurgence is occurring” for tree farmers. “I definitely see a better future for them,” he said.
Americans bought 28.2 million farm-grown Christmas trees and another 11.7 million artificial trees in 2009, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.
Growing Christmas trees is a tough business, Watne said. It can take as long as 10 years for a new farmer to be able to start selling his crop and make money. That’s why Watne believes the future of the business may lie in existing farms adding trees to their land, as Peckham Farm in Middletown has done.
“It’s a lot more work than I thought when I got into it,” said Watne, who like many of the state’s newer farmers also works a day job. “I sort of thought – it’s a tree, you just plant it. But it’s a full-time hobby. It takes a lot of time.”