INDIANOLOA, Iowa – When you think “Iowa agriculture,” your thoughts may turn to corn or soybeans, but over 1500 acres and more than 100 farms add up to $1 million sector of the state’s farming landscape: Christmas trees.
On Friday, mother and daughter Jodi and Sydney Bentley of Des Moines threw out their artificial Christmas tree and took advantage of the nice weather to visit Walnut Ridge Farm in Indianola, to pick out their first real Christmas tree. It took a little searching and a little work to cut down the ideal tree by hand, but Jodi Bentley recommends the experience.
“Oh, just do it,” she says, laughing. “This is our first time, and even though, you know, mother and daughter, we nag at each other even when we’re not cutting down a tree. It’s OK. It all worked out.”
Nice weather and a late Thanksgiving this year resulted in the best business Gary Harman, above, has had in 32 years of growing Christmas Trees at Walnut Ridge Farm; he says conditions all through this year were well suited for it.
“We did have a little bit of a dry spell in July and August,” he says, “but… the trees made it through; it wasn’t terribly hot.”
Roughly 75 percent of the new trees Harman planted this year survived; in 2012, only ten percent survived. “2013 was a little better,” says Harman, “because it was not quite so hot; it was still dry, but not quite so hot.”
For Harman, the Iowa climate has been more or less friendly toward growing Christmas trees for more than three decades, even though hot summers aren’t exactly welcome.
“Particularly the firs don’t like the hot summers,” Harman says, “and if the soil temperature gets above 85 degrees, the trees will die. Doesn’t make any difference how big they are. Little ones, big ones, if that soil temperature gets up too high, they just die.”
Harman’s total inventory is about 40,000 trees on 40 acres; he estimates it takes an average ten years to get just one tree to Christmas tree-size, and says there’s roughly three thousand trees ready to be cut at Walnut Ridge Farm this year.
According to the Iowa Department of Agriculture, Iowans harvest about 39,500 Christmas trees every year.