CHINA — When Robert Palmer and his wife Donna purchased their Hanson Road farm, he wanted to raise cattle. But, deterred by slaughtering cows, the duo opted to grow Christmas trees for the winter.

Ben and Molly’s Christmas Tree Farm, named after the Palmer’s beloved Spaniels, and other farms across Central Maine opened for business on Friday. Earlier this week, farmers were crafting wreaths, trimming trees, baking cookies and mulling cider to prepare for throngs of Mainers in search of their holiday centerpiece.

Now in his second year of selling trees, Robert Palmer is expecting a doubling in sales from the 100 trees they sold last year. He said Sunday morning that he had sold sixteen trees this weekend, even with bitter cold and rainy conditions in central Maine hampering travel.

“Each year, it seems to get better and better,” he said. “We prepare all summer long for this season.”

Cody Hickey, of Pittston, picked out a tree with his girlfriend Mikaela Sleeper; their children Addison, 1, and Delanie, 3; his brother Scott Hickey, of West Gardiner; and Scott’s girlfriend Libby Williams. Cody Hickey said this was the first year he picked out a tree with his brother and the first time he had been to the Palmers’ farm. He said it would likely become an annual tradition.

“This place is pretty good,” he said after lugging two trees out with his group. “They have a good selection.”

Jim Corliss, owner of Piper Mountain Christmas Trees in Newburgh and spokesman for the Maine Christmas Tree Association (MCTA), said customers are beginning to select narrower trees than years prior. He referred to the shape as “the upside down ice cream cone.”

“The most popular size is 7 to 8 feet and people have begun to like a narrower tree than used to be the case 30 years ago,” he said. “It certainly influences how we shear them, it’s the narrow ones that get taken.”

Joe Young, owner of Fayette’s Moose Hill Farm, said the perfect tree is in the eye of the beholder.

“They’re looking for a nice shaped tree that is full and pretty,” he said. “But some like them fat and some like them skinny, some like them with space between the branches and some like them full.”

Cody Hickey was similarly open-ended when discussing the perfect tree.

“Just one that’s full and looks good in the corner,” he said.

Corliss said the MCTA is working on breeding a “superior strain” of Balsam fir trees at their seed orchard. He said the ideal tree would have up-swept branches, a two-tone dark green color and grow in six years, rather than eight or 10. He said the association has gotten some successful specimens from the seed orchard.

Corliss added the Balsam firs are the industry standard in Maine, but some Scotch pines and Frasier firs also grab a share of the market. He said the association’s nemesis are artificial trees, which he said takes 1.5 percent of the MCTA’s market share each year.

Robert Palmer said that he has had customers who are turning away from artificial trees because they want to have the traditional outdoor experience of tracking down a tree.

“They want the outside experience with their families,” he said. “You’re getting some of that old family Christmas tradition back in the younger generation.”

An Associated Press report said that shoppers could have more trouble finding a tree this year due to a tight supply. The report attribute last decade’s Great Recession with diminishing the supply of trees and the eight- to 10-year growing cycle for trees for the restrictions. Frank Zmigrodski, president of the MCTA and owner the Oldfield Farms in Vassalboro, refuted that for Mainers.

“I don’t know who started that rumor, but you should know there is no shortage in Maine,” he said, postulating that the artificial tree industry could be stirring the pot. “I know a few wholesalers that have extra trees.”

Young called the AP report a “myth” and said trees will be available to customers throughout the season.

“I think that is a total myth,” he said of the perceived shortage. “No one will go away unhappy unless they can’t find a tree that they like; it’s not going to be because there’s a shortage.”

Zmigrodski said his 500-tree farm had a number of calls ahead of the season to confirm they were open the day after Thanksgiving. Corliss said that the weekend after Thanksgiving is usually one of the busiest of the year, second only to the first weekend of December.

“Thanksgiving weekend has become quite big,” Corliss said. “After the second weekend in December, it drops right off.”

The Palmers wrote and published a children’s book about their farm’s beginning, complete with illustrated versions of themselves, Ben and Molly. For the Palmers, operating a tree farm is straight out of a story book and they are rewarded by seeing happy families romping around the farm and selecting their Christmas tree.

“Christmas is all about the spirit of giving,” Robert Palmer said. “Nobody comes to the Christmas tree farm really miserable like they have to go to a (store.)”

“That’s the true joy (of running a Christmas tree farm,” Donna Palmer said. “You love to see the kids out there.”

 

Sam Shepherd — 621-5666

[email protected]

Twitter: @SamShepME

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