Central Ohio Christmas tree farms expecting high demand
For central Ohioans concerned about – and weary of – the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, the Christmas season promises a welcome respite.
Yet, with indoor gatherings strongly discouraged by medical experts and Gov. Mike DeWine, and live performances of such holiday staples as “The Nutcracker” canceled, families might be seeking activities that are festive, as safe as possible and outside four walls.
Perhaps cutting a Christmas tree could be one of those activities that adds some sparkle to the season.
Sensing a trend, numerous central Ohio tree farms are expecting high demand this year.
“That’s what we’re being told through the industry,” said Donna Cackler of Delaware's Cackler Family Farms, which opened Nov. 21.
Customers are asked to make reservations ahead of visiting the farm at 4971 Cackler Road.
“We’re just going to do the best we can and try to keep everybody happy, healthy and have a wonderful holiday," Cackler said.
Cackler Family Farms recently lost five workers who had to quarantine following coronavirus exposure.
Cackler, who has hired three replacements and planned to hire two more, said she hopes that she and the other members of her family remain healthy so the farm can stay operational during the holiday season.
“If anything happens, then that wipes us out,” Cackler said. “We are taking all precautions necessary with the cleaning and the masks and everything, ... but all you have to do is slip up once."
Cackler said she has been fielding requests from customers since early November – a bridge too far for the longtime tree purveyor.
“The thing is they’re not going to be happy with me,” Cackler said of customers who want to cut trees too early and thus risk the trees not holding up for the duration. “Your Christmas tree is the centerpiece of your home during the holidays, and you want it to look good through Christmas.”
Even so, Cackler Family Farms is one of several area tree farms to open a bit on the early side.
The Messerall Family Tree Farm at 4634 Hardscrabble Road in Alexandria also opened the weekend before Thanksgiving.
“I think people are just bursting for Christmas,” said owner Tom Messerall, whose farm typically opens on Black Friday. “They’re going to be out early, and, of course, typically it’s an outside activity. They can do that with social distancing. Families are just looking for something they can do.”
Stan Haas of Christmas Tree Junction at 430 Willey Road in Delaware put it bluntly: “People have been sort of pent up, so to speak.”
The demand for Christmas trees is being seen nationwide, said Tim O’Connor, the executive director of the National Christmas Tree Association, which represents more than 700 farms.
O’Connor said member farms are experiencing “unprecedented” levels of early contact by consumers eager to pick their trees.
“People have ratcheted up their time schedule this year, and they’re thinking about their Christmas tree much earlier,” said O’Connor, who attributes some of the extra demand to families anticipating a holiday season spent in their own home.
“For some people, if they knew they were traveling, they wouldn’t put up a tree,” he said. “If they’re home, they’re likely going to put up a tree.”
Shoppers have been demonstrating an eagerness to get on with any sort of holiday celebration at least since the fall, said Ben Smith of the Sugargrove Tree Farm at 1619 Township Road 1455 in Ashland.
“On the other end of the business, ... we have greenhouses, a farm market and fall-festival pumpkin patch and a corn maze, and we have seen an increase in all of those things,” said Smith, who expects Christmas trees to move quickly.
Despite the demand, families who make the trek to cut their trees should expect social-distancing requirements and other public-health measures, such as sanitizing indoor surfaces.
There are some precautions being taken that could be considered unique to the industry. For example, the Saum Family Farm at 4675 Hamburg Road SW in Lancaster is cleaning wagons and saws after each use.
Several farms also have curtailed family activities that could be considered risky during the pandemic.
“One of the things we’ve always had that was a big draw has been our free cookies and hot chocolate – we’re going to eliminate that this year,” said Smith, adding that horse-drawn wagon rides to the fields also have been eliminated.
Some farms are taking extra precautions to ensure customers maintain distancing.
Before visiting Cackler Family Farms in Delaware, patrons are asked to reserve time on its website, cacklerfarms.com.
“Our reservation system allows for eight families,” Cackler said. “Every 15 minutes, it will open up for eight more families. The thing is to avoid the lines we’ve had in the past and hopefully to keep everyone safe.”
Most tree farms report having sufficient stock, but if some end up being short on trees, eager area families won’t be the only ones to blame.
“Wholesalers can’t get trees, really – they’ve been calling us from Maryland, from Pennsylvania, from Indiana,” said Jack Crosley, owner of Crosley’s Tree Farm at 2862 Polk Hollow Road in Chillicothe. “All we have left is for our local customers.”
Because Christmas trees take about eight years to reach the height at which they can be marketed, farmers have to guess about future demand – and no one could have foreseen consumer behavior this season.
“Eight years ago, ... the economy was not good, and people were not buying as many trees, so farms didn’t plant as many trees,” Messerall said.
Regardless of how the season shakes out, Christmas tree farmers hope to give central Ohioans a reason to celebrate at the end of a difficult year.
“We want to make your Christmas memory not be part of the bad things that have happened in 2020,” Cackler said. “We want to be the good part.”