CHOICE CUTS: Tree farms buzz with with heightened demand and limited supply

A family hauls its choice tree from the field at Sambol's Tree Farm. (Tom Russo | Daily Reporter)

HANCOCK COUNTY — Among the hot holiday items that are flying off the shelves quickly this year: Indiana-grown Christmas trees.

If you’re hoping to cut down your own Christmas tree this season, you may not want to wait much longer. One Hancock County Christmas tree farm has already sold out of its supply, while others are running low on ready-to-harvest trees.

Robert Wendt, the owner of Lost Forty Tree Farm, has shut down for the season. Unlike some other farms, Wendt doesn’t ship in pre-cut trees from out of state, and his crop for this year has already sold out.

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“We had the busiest early season that we’ve ever had,” Wendt said.

Lost Forty, 4490 N. County Road 400E, opened several weeks earlier than it usually does this year, in an attempt to space out the crowd that usually arrives the weekend after Thanksgiving. But Wendt said that strategy didn’t work all that well: The farm was still packed last weekend. He quickly sold all the trees he could while still protecting a supply to keep growing until next Christmas.

Lance Sambol, the owner of Sambol’s Tree Farm along with his wife, said the number of trees he has sold this year was about the same as in 2019, but he made one major adjustment: He took appointments for tree buyers during the Friday and weekend after Thanksgiving.

The individual appointments were a way of cutting down on crowds during the busiest weekend for Christmas tree purchases, both as a COVID-19 safety precaution and to avoid crowds that could overwhelm the staff and lead to lines of backed-up cars.

“That made it, I think, a little more enjoyable for everyone, including our staff,” said Sambol, whose farm is at 7783 North State Road 9.

Next year, although COVID-19 will hopefully no longer be a concern, he plans to do the same thing. Appointments made the busy weekend less chaotic and gave him more of a chance to connect with customers he sees only once per year.

“We’re going to sell out of our trees every year, so why not make it a little easier?” Sambol said.

Cheyenne Alspaugh is one Hancock County resident who picked out a Christmas tree at Sambol’s farm during the weekend, along with her husband and two young daughters, after making an appointment in advance. Alspaugh said she has always enjoyed having real fir trees during the holiday season, and during the age of COVID-19, her family is putting more emphasis on Christmas traditions that can be enjoyed together at home.

“The Elf on the Shelf will hopefully be making an appearance soon,” she said.

This year, Alspaugh noticed demand for the trees at Sambol’s seemed higher than usual.

“They were very picked-over this year, I will say,” she said.

Sambol said there is a shortage of home-grown Christmas trees in Indiana this year. Every year, he plants almost 2,000 trees. But fir trees take several years to grow to a respectable Christmas-tree height, and not all of them make it. Only about one-seventh of the trees on the farm can be harvested in a given Christmas season.

The farm will sell about 1,500 total trees this year, Sambol estimated, but many of those who wait until later in the holiday season will likely end up with a pre-cut tree.

Wendt said the shortage is partially driven by droughts that hindered growth in much of the country during 2011, 2012 and 2013. Some of those trees would be ready to sell in 2020, but they did not all survive.

“It’s a seller’s market now,” Wendt said, although he added that he hasn’t raised his prices over 2019.

Rex Zenor, owner of Piney Acres tree farm, 1115 E. County Road 1000N, said he is not yet sold out of his homegrown trees, but it has been a busy season.

“So far, it’s been great,” he said.

Zenor said the consequences of the drought have created a shortage that both buyers and sellers were concerned about. Some customers might not be able to get the 7- to 9-foot-tall fir tree that is the typical ideal Christmas tree, he said.

Sambol plans to keep increasing the number of trees he plants each year to keep up with demand. In the meantime, he encouraged customers who haven’t gotten a tree yet to go out and do so.

“People will still be able to go out and get a great tree, they just might not be able to cut it down,” he said.

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Several central Indiana Christmas tree farms chipped in to donate trees to military families this year as part of the "Trees for Troops" campaign. 

Ten farms in Indiana, including Sambol’s Tree Farm and Piney Acres, donated a total of 86 trees. The trees were picked up by FedEx on Monday, Nov. 30, and will be given to military service members to help them celebrate Christmas on military bases. 

Trees for Troops is a project of the Christmas Spirit Foundation, which plans to send about 14,500 trees to 79 bases this year.