GARDINER — Christmas is just about four months away. But for Rusty Greenleaf, the pressure has been on for months.

As the chairman of the Christmas tree committee for the Gardiner Rotary, it is Greenleaf’s job to secure a supply of trees for the club’s popular annual Christmas tree fundraiser.

Yet for the first time in nearly three decades, he didn’t have anything lined up months in advance, because his usual source was halting wholesale sales of holiday trees. And that source is not alone.

Across Maine, the number of Christmas tree growers offering trees for resale as part of their business is shrinking, as is the number of tree farms in operation and that’s reshaping the outlook for the wholesale Christmas tree market in Maine.

And that leaves organizations like the Gardiner Rotary and the Dresden Fire & Rescue Department scrambling to source trees for popular year-end fundraising sales.

“We did get trees locally about six or seven years ago, but it just got so that there were so few people growing them, and a lot of people were doing cut-your-own,” said Sharon Lilly, of the Dresden Fire Association. “We don’t have the ability to go cut a significant amount, and a lot of places don’t want you to cut that way.”



Any holiday tree that gets cut for sale this year — either retail or wholesale — likely got its start more than a decade ago as a seedling that a Christmas tree farmer plugged into a field, but the cycle starts even earlier with field preparation.

At Frederickson’s Tree Farms in Monmouth, a cut-your-own operation, workers are getting ready now to prepare a field for trees that will be cut 10 to 12 years from now.

Owner Tom Auger said stumps are starting to be cleared now in a field with several dozen trees remaining that will be cut later this year.

Farm manager Pat Boulette runs a custom made gas-powered trimmer with a 6-foot blade Friday at Frederickson’s Tree Farm in Monmouth. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“We’ll  have Smith Farm bring over some liquid cow manure, spread it in the field. And we have a guy that comes down from the Waterville area with some lime,” he said. “Then we rototill the field and seed it and let it sit.”

When the field is ready in a couple of years, the young trees that are planted will require annual tending and care. During their life cycle, growers fertilize them with nitrogen, trim and shear them into a pleasing shape, checking for pests and keeping weeds and grass at bay. Each of those steps represent money that’s paid out annually and recouped only when that tree is cut and sold.


In 2012, when at least some of the trees cut this year were planted, Maine was still reeling from the cascading effects of the global financial crisis dubbed the Great Recession that started five years earlier. The turmoil prompted some hard decisions by tree growers that resulted in a number going out business and others opting to risk less money by planting fewer trees.

“A lot of older people, as they’ve stopped doing it, there’s not been anybody to come behind them to pick it up,” Lowell Frieman said. “As you drive around, you see lots of fields that have been plain let go. (The growers) stopped having labor to help them or they have aged out if it and they have said, OK, I’m done.”

Frieman owns and operates Davis Stream Tree Farm in Washington. He’s among the growers who have given up growing trees for resale, but that has not stopped the calls from people like Greenleaf and Lilly who are looking for trees. He estimates he gets about five calls a week, some from out of state, and he has no leads to offer.

Farm manager Pat Boulette runs a custom made gas-powered trimmer with a 6-foot blade Friday at Frederickson’s Tree Farm in Monmouth. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

The shortage of Christmas trees is not limited only to Maine. While it’s the most forested state in the nation, Maine is only a tiny player in the national wholesale Christmas tree market compared to Oregon and North Carolina, which are the top wholesale producing states.

“There are parts of the country where the wholesale business of Christmas trees has really shifted to,” said Tim O’Connor, executive director of the National Christmas Tree Association. “And it’s big, big business for those growers.”

The national supply of wholesale trees is tight and is expected to remain so for several more years, O’Connor said.  It’s the consequence of the glut of the 1990s that flooded the market with trees, driving down prices and driving some growers out of business.


“These states had gone into big wholesale production, and they took a bloodbath,” O’Connor said. “When you have too many items chasing a finite number of buyers, it becomes are price war, and that’s what happened. You had these growers who desperately needed to sell trees and you had all these buyers who could play these sellers against each other.”


Maine’s Christmas tree sector can be characterized as small-scale mom-and-pop operations dominated by cut-your-own operations. That business got a bump during the COVID-19 pandemic, as many families opted to cut their own from fields as a relatively safe alternative to buying one from a big box store.

Even as people turned to cutting trees themselves, the fundraisers have persevered and are still looking for trees.

Lilly said the Dresden Fire Association is likely to get its trees from a wholesaler in Canada to sell this year.

“As long as we can get (trees), we’ll continue,” Lilly said, “and hopefully have enough people to do it. We usually make out all right getting the help to do it.”


Greenleaf asked for leads for sources and followed up on all of them, but by mid-July, none of them had come through. Other suggestions came his way, and they were growers who had already turned him down.

Farm manager Pat Boulette sprays herbicide Friday to kill weeds beneath rows of trees that were planted four years ago, at Frederickson’s Tree Farm in Monmouth. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“The people who buy from us like the fact that we always have local trees,” Greenleaf said, noting that the Gardiner Rotary has traditionally bought trees from a tree farm in Searsmont that was changing hands and getting out of the wholesale business.

When Greenleaf initially couldn’t find any trees, the club briefly considered skipping a year of sales, but they didn’t want to risk losing the spot it has occupied for years in the Hannaford parking lot in Gardiner.

When Greenleaf learned that Fredrickson’s planned to clear a field this year of about 140 trees to get ready to plant again, he and some other club members went to look at them.

“It’s not the quality of the trees that we’re used to getting,” he said. “We’re going to have some Charlie Brown trees; we’re going to have some that will be OK in a corner and some that won’t be what people are looking for.”

While that solves the problem this year, Greenleaf doesn’t know what will happen next year. The club has authorized him to put down a deposit now, if he needs to secure some trees for 2023.

“I think this is going to be a problem for a while,” he said.

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