The frost is on the pumpkin! Warm weather crops have been harvested and the cool weather crops are about to be. Then, after several heavy killing frosts will be the annual Christmas tree harvest.
In early October Christmas tree growers that sell to dealers start going over the check list of things that have to be ready for that short season known as the harvest. The major retail buyers want their trees delivered before Thanksgiving which means this year they want their trees as early as November 17th. Brush for wreath making is requested earlier than that. All of this means a fast and furious situation that includes weekends, deer hunting season and usually a lot of nasty foul weather. Everything has to be ready!
All trees that meet size and grade requirements have to be tagged/counted with different colored ribbons so that the grower knows how many trees he has to sell and can match what is available to the orders as they are received. Usually this process starts after “shearing” and continues usually through the heavy order taking period of August/September. Because there are so many part numbers involved this project is a lot more work than one would think. Even though the grower knows his trees well he has the tendency to burn out after tagging 500 to 600 trees per day. All trees start looking alike. But it has to be accomplished not only for the count of trees but when the harvest begins the “cutter” has to be able to “read” the tree he is cutting to ensure correct size and grade…not always easy when there is a fresh snow fall. A graphic artist would have fun sketching a grower running thru the field of trees with all his ribbons, every color in the rainbow including dots and stripes, flapping in the wind from his flagging pole or pouch or pockets. These ribbons by the way can be numbered to keep track of the count.
All equipment has to be serviced to make sure that it is ready for the rigors of the harvest. Down time cannot be tolerated. X how many trees must be harvested each day or the schedule will not be met and this will upset the trucking/delivery schedule. Say nothing about the cost of payroll with workers standing around doing little to nothing. In case of breakdown local mechanics will be accommodating on the trucks and tractors and maybe chainsaws but the specialty equipment such as the baler could require parts that would have to be shipped from the manufacturer. The only known mechanic for the balers is two hours away from my farm, which means you have to know how to make your own repairs.
Extra employees are required. How many depends on how many trees are to be harvested and how many days you have set aside for the harvest. A good minimum crew would be six but properly managed more could be used. As mentioned in an earlier article the show must go on so you end up working with the number that shows up that day. I preach safety to the crew because a lot of “bulling and jamming” goes on and accidents could happen. I also watch for that willing worker whose physical condition and overall health does not match the work at hand.
With everything ready and running smooth the actual harvest is quite simple and can be kind of exciting. The trees are cut, dragged to the service road, baled and loaded onto a truck or trailer for transport back to the holding area. Ideally the holding area will keep the trees out of the sun and wind and yet be open for all forms of precipitation. Remember the number one aspect of quality is freshness. A harvested tree left on a windy, sunny hilltop dehydrates very rapidly. Our holding area is a grove of large spruce trees with corrals to allow standing the trees as opposed to laying them flat.
Some buyers send their own truck for pick up but generally we arrange a commercial hauler for the job. It is up to the individual grower but in most cases the buyer assumes responsibility for the load after we load and the truck leaves the farm. This is known as FOB farm. The buyer then owns the trees and is responsible for paying the freight bill. Words of advice: Do not encourage buyers to pick up their own trees or send a truck of their choice. The reason being most trucks are not equipped with proper sideboard stakes and will cause delays in loading and a potential unsafe load and if the weather is icy or snowy they may have difficulties because they do not have chains. Also when hiring a local trucker it is wise to ensure that he has cargo insurance.
With a sigh of relief the grower watches the last load of trees leave the yard. Then it is time to clean up the equipment and put it away for another year. But it is not over yet! The buyers of the trees have laid out all that money to buy the trees that are now laying all over their retail space and they have yet to see the first customer. They are nervous to say the least! They have probably counted their trees 10 times and are convinced they were short shipped. The color codes are confusing and a couple of broken branches and shortages qualify a reason to call Fred the grower. Now, Fred has been there and done that. After many years of retailing trees I can share the nervousness. I know that if five people count the same pile of trees maybe two arrive at the same number. I know that the ribbons that were clearly visible when the tree was standing is now buried in the branches. I know that a few branches get broken in shipment and a few trees can be damaged by low bridges and trees. Knowing all this I handle each call expertly and calmly. I would also add, during the discussion you have to determine if the complaints are real, generated by nervousness or are you dealing with a chronic complainer. Another thing I know is that once the retailer starts selling the trees and the rush is on there will be no more complaints. I do scratch my head though and wonder, after counting the trees so carefully while being loaded, why only one customer has ever called and said my count was over.
One bit of advice I remind myself, is that as long as the margin of error is small and refunds are not great it is best to forget and move on. Next year is another year.
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**Disclaimer- It needs to be clearly understood that my consulting expertise is derived entirely from my love and time invested in the industry and not by a degree in Horticulture or Forestry, but rather in Marketing.