MESICK — There was a drought this year at Antioch Tree Farm near Mesick.

That's what Blake Sherburne, who operates the farm alongside his father, Wade, told a Cadillac News reporter this week.

The MSU Extension Christmas Tree Educator had just told the reporter about how this year's heavy rains had proved challenging for some tree growers.

So did Sherburne mean a metaphorical drought? A financial drought?

No. He meant an actual drought—one where there's no rain.

Everybody else nearby seemed to get the rain this year, but not the Sherburne family's tree farm in Antioch Township.

"We got missed by everything. It was amazing," said Blake Sherburne. "We could see (the rain) hammer (Cadillac)."

Sherburne's family tree farm is in a rain shadow, nestled between the Manistee River and the Yuma Hills.

"If you're standing in the field, you can see it happen.," Sherburne said. "It'll hit the hills and it'll hit the river and it'll break up and go over us or it'll split and go around us."

Still, Christmas trees are the best crop for the landscape, the Sherburnes say. It's sandy there and corn, for example, would be far too thirsty.

As it is, the Fraser fir, the Sherburne's most important tree species, sucks up a lot of water; they have seven wells and hundreds of miles of drip irrigation set up to keep the Fraser fir's thirst quenched.

The Fraser fir is where the market is.

"It became something you had to do," Sherburne said. "The pine market started to go away. The blue spruce market is almost dead."

Blue spruces are being attacked by disease; you can see it in the blue spruces used for landscaping and Christmas trees have the same problem.

"We have a hard time growing them to cuttable height," Sherburne said.

It makes less and less sense to plant the formerly popular blue spruces. The Fraser fir, despite being tougher to grow on the Sherburne's land, makes more sense.

Consumers like the softer needles on the Fraser fir.

"They're nicer to work with all around," Sherburne said. 

Between their thirst and the deer that like to eat them, the Fraser fir is a demanding tree and an expensive one to grow. The tree needs fencing to keep the deer out and drip irrigation to keep it hydrated, particularly in a drought like Antioch Tree Farm experienced this summer.

It's the Fraser's thirtstiness that might make the tree a safer bet for the Sherburnes going forward.

With climate change, Michigan's weather will be more variable and wetter—making the climate here more like North and South Carolina, where the trees are from, Sherburne said.

"Unless we continually get missed by rain," Sherburne said.

If you've heard about a Christmas tree shortage this year, though, it's not the weather that's keeping the farm from supplying as many trees this year as they'd like. For the Sherburnes and for Christmas tree farmers in general, it's the recession, still, that's causing problems.

"We didn't plant a tree in 2010," Sherburne said. "We just didn't have any money to do it."

Their customers — a lot of big box stores, among others — want to buy trees, but the Sherburnes don't have them. It's a problem other farmers are facing, too, according to Jill O'Donnell, MSU Extension Christmas Tree Educator.

“It takes a while for Christmas trees to come to market,‘ about 8-10 years, O'Donnell said. When the economy downturned and there was an oversupply, growers didn’t plant as many trees. Some retired.

“We’re seeing the repercussions from that," O'Donnell said. But it's more of a problem for the middlemen than for the average retail customer. O'Donnell said most people who want to buy a tree this year should be able to find one.

For the Sherburnes, their busy season is over. The big box stores that buy their trees have already picked them up because they wanted inventory by this weekend.

Other than some customers who will cut their tree at the farm—which isn't a big part of their business; it's more of a service to the local community—the Sherburnes, for now, can rest.

Cadillac News