All they want for Christmas is rain

Originally published for The Sun Chronicle on Dec. 22, 2016.

With snow, rain and slush on the horizon, it’s hard to see the lingering effects of last summer’s drought, but Miller’s Family Farm in North Attleboro knows the consequence all too well.

Last year, the prolonged dry spell forced the farm to shut down its Christmas tree operation for the season.

And this year, the drought only worsened – starving the hundreds of trees on the farm’s 10-acre property and leaving the Millers again without a viable crop.

During much of the summer, Southeastern Massachusetts was classified in severe drought. Since then, it has eased slightly, but the Attleboro area is still under a drought warning, which means there have been at least six consecutive months with groundwater and reservoirs at levels below normal.

What’s a Christmas tree farmer to do under the circumstances?

After numerous phone calls and emails from the farm’s faithful followers, Rick Miller said he had no choice but to give the people what they wanted: a healthy Christmas tree.

To do so, Miller imported about 600 trees from other areas free of drought, including Maine, Quebec and parts of New Hampshire.

The imports saved the farm from another winter without revenue, but if the drought continues, Miller said the family will have to invest in irrigation to keep the business going.

Christmas trees take in water and nutrients during the spring, summer and into early fall, Miller said, but then turn dormant and retain that moisture to help them get through the winter. If there’s not enough water stored before a tree is cut, the tree isn’t viable: Pine needles fall off prematurely in a season where all customers hope for is a tree that will last through the holidays.

Not confident with the state of his trees after last year’s drought, Miller decided to close the farm for Christmas in 2015, unwilling to sell his customers a bad product. This year, he worked to hand-water parts of the property himself, but with 10-acres, it was all but impossible.

About 600 new trees on the property have irrigation and did well, but stand only 2 feet tall. Miller said he hopes the trees will be ready for next year’s harvest, and he hopes to expand irrigation across the property to avoid the effects of drought in future years.

Until then, he was forced again to go a season without offering cut-em-yourself trees on the property.

“I think it’s a horrible thing to sell something that’s not good,” Miller said. “They’re all alive – we haven’t lost one tree. I just felt if we cut them, it would be a disaster for the customer.”

And last year, it was for some.

“In the past few weeks, I have received many emails and a few calls from people saying the tree they bought elsewhere last year did not last until Christmas, something our farm would not want any family to experience,” Miller wrote in a Facebook post in November. “We’d rather not take a chance!”

Luckily, Miller said many of his returning customers applauded the farm for its decision to close, and promised they’d be back this year – dedicated to the customer service the farm promises.

And, while an imported tree might seem more costly, Miller said he was able to find wholesale Christmas trees for a good price and passed the savings on to his customers. Almost all of the trees have been sold, save a few that the farm holds onto for families or veterans in need, or if a customer comes back with a complaint.

Over in Attleboro, Standley’s Tree Farm said it managed to have a normal selling season. The farm moved ahead and cut trees from its own property for sale, but said the drought this year increased the amount of effort needed to keep the trees alive.

As a result, they did face some losses in their crop.

“To have two years of drought, that affects your growing losses,” Bill Standley said. “It affects how much work you need to do to keep your trees alive. The past two years required a lot more hand watering to take care of the trees naturally.”

Standley said the younger trees required a lot more care and attention to keep them alive during the dry months, while the older trees on the property were able to self-regulate and survive on their own.

That is, unless they weren’t – the business is highly unpredictable, Standley said.

“Sometimes we would go out one day and a tree would be fine, and next thing we know, the whole thing turned brown overnight because we didn’t know,” he said.

With Christmas fast approaching, however, both farms are happy to have survived the summer.

And this year, they’ll ask Santa for only one thing.

Rain.

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