© 2024 WLRN
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Florida Christmas trees might be a little ugly, but they’re better for the planet

Tony Harris, 67, is shown with a sand pine at his Christmas Tree Farm in Dade City. “It’s soft, but it’s beautiful. It decorates nice.”
Ivy Ceballo
The Tampa Bay Times
Tony Harris, 67, is shown with a sand pine at his Christmas Tree Farm in Dade City. “It’s soft, but it’s beautiful. It decorates nice.” 

Nestled between towering longleaf pines and live oaks, Tony Harris’ tree farm is home to another native species with a less imposing presence: The bushy, stout Florida sand pine.

Out in the wild, the unassuming tree can reach anywhere from 20 to 40 feet high, its limbs twisting and tangling as it grows. If left alone, its trunk curves like a bonsai. But if pruned twice annually and watered year-round, it can make the closest thing to a Christmas tree found in Florida, Harris says.

READ MORE: With higher Christmas tree prices, is an artificial tree an option?

“It’s soft, but it’s beautiful,” he said, stroking the needles of one stocky six-footer. “It decorates nice.”

For $6 per foot, Harris encourages families to come out and chop their own sand pines. He estimates there are up to 15,000 native pines in the ground at his Dade City property, Ergle Christmas Tree Farm.

Though a big part of the attraction of the 65-acre farm, these scruffy-looking pines are not the moneymaker that keeps his business open, he said.

Imported Christmas trees, which make up the bulk of Harris’ sales, are often shipped to Florida from North Carolina in refrigerated trucks. That high transportation cost falls on consumers and cuts into profit margins for sellers like Harris. This year, Christmas tree prices have risen 10% nationwide, according to the American Christmas Tree Association. As a result, Harris has noticed more customers walking past his rows of Frasier firs and reaching for a handsaw.

“With the economy, I’ve noticed more people are going to cut a tree,” he said. “Because it’s a lot cheaper to go out and cut a tree than it is to get one of these.”

A sign is seen at Ergle Christmas Tree Farm in Dade City. People can cut down their own sand pine trees at the farm.
Ivy Ceballos
The Tampa Bay Times
A sign is seen at Ergle Christmas Tree Farm in Dade City. People can cut down their own sand pine trees at the farm.

Native Florida pines aren’t just easier on people’s wallets, they’re also better for the planet, forestry managers say.

Ian Stone is a forestry agent for the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences’ extension office in Walton County. He said thinning out thick forests of sand pines is actually better for many state and federal lands than leaving them be.

Florida’s longleaf pine forests had nearly disappeared by the 1990s due to clear-cutting for development and farmland. In recent years, state foresters have worked to restore native longleaf ecosystems.

Stone said one way to do that is to control the growth of other plants that have cropped up in woods where longleafs once reigned.

“Sand pine grow really quick, but they they don’t live near as long,” he said. “If you have way too many sand pine where there’s longleaf, those sand pine are going to shade out the longleaf.”

And while there’s a carbon cost tacked onto each imported festive fir, native trees don’t have that issue, Stone added.

READ MORE: 'Not even close': Clean-up of Everglades water polluted by Big Sugar struggles to keep up

Shipping a refrigerated tree to Florida produces much greater emissions than driving 30 miles to cut a native one yourself, but shipping a plastic tree from China to the states is even worse, Stone said.

“When people say, ‘Oh, the artificial trees are more sustainable,’ what they miss is that the wood and the needles and everything from a live tree will break down and decompose and go back into the soil,” he said.

“That artificial tree, where does it go? It goes to a landfill. And those are plastics that take hundreds of years to break down.”

About 10 million artificial trees are purchased each season in the U.S., with 90% of them shipped across the world from China, according to The Nature Conservancy, a global nonprofit.

Some estimates put the carbon footprint of producing a 6-foot-tall artificial tree at more than 10 times the amount of carbon dioxide emitted in transporting a live tree, equivalent to about 45 pounds of coal burned.

“None of the artificial options really come close to a live tree for being sustainable long-term,” Stone said. “And even though, yes, you’re cutting a new tree down every year, it doesn’t take but five to seven years or so in our area for a tree to get up to a sellable size.”

There are other perks of going to a local tree farm, he added. Growers have nurtured these pines since they were seedlings and can tell customers exactly how they were grown and how to care for them.

“It’s kind of like going to your local farmers market for your produce,” Stone said.

Duane Vann, 71, of Bushnell, takes a tree from Ergle Christmas Tree Farm in Dade City on Dec. 7.
Ivy Ceballos
The Tampa Bay Times
Duane Vann, 71, of Bushnell, takes a tree from Ergle Christmas Tree Farm in Dade City on Dec. 7.

Aging out
Harris was born in Dade City and has lived there his entire life. When his career in telecommunications hardware installation would have brought him to New York City, he quit his job and moved to his wife’s farm. That was 34 years ago.

Over the decades, he’s tried all kinds of crops on the farm — pumpkins, blueberries and hydroponic strawberries. Harris even fenced off an area to build a short-lived petting zoo. But Christmas trees have stuck, and loyal customers flock to the farm soon after Thanksgiving.

“I get to see them year after year,” Harris said. “I get to see their families grow up. And that’s pretty cool, but it makes me feel old sometimes.”

Age is a limiting factor in this line of work. The 67-year-old grower suffered an arm injury last year and eased up on the amount of manual labor he does himself. Aging farmers and the rising cost of rural land that is pricing out would-be growers are the biggest threats to Florida’s tree farms.

“The price of the land has gotten so high that a lot of the farmers are selling out,” Harris said. “And the kids don’t want to keep the place going.”

Harris said his only hope for keeping the farm alive would be to pass it on to his only granddaughter.

“She loves this farm. She grew up here,” he said. “She’s the likely candidate.”

For Michael Songer, finding an heir to his farm has been a similar struggle.

Songer runs the Florida Christmas Tree Association, a group of tree growers statewide who sell native pines during the holidays. A decade ago, more than 100 farms were a part of the association. Now, there are fewer than 35 across the state, he said. Songer, a former accountant who jumped at the chance to own land in north Florida, used to plant 2,000 seedlings each year. These days, even with the help of local boy scouts he hires, he can barely keep up with half that many trees on his Clay County farm.

“I’m 80 years old now and I don’t have quite the stamina to trim them,” Songer said.

He said he hopes to sell the farm to one of his neighbors, a young man who grew up helping out on his property.

“But there’s no way he could afford it. The prices went up so much,” Songer said. “I don’t know what do.”

Christmas Tree Farm 2
Ivy Ceballos
The Tampa Bay Times
Duane Vann, 71, left, and Connie Vann, 73, right, of Bushnell, look for a tree to take home at Ergle Christmas Tree Farm in Dade City on Dec. 7.

'No such thing as an ugly Christmas tree'

Connie Vann, 73, and her husband Duane, 71, pulled up to Ergle Tree Farm in their white pickup truck late one December morning.

The Vanns needed a small tree this year and drove less than an hour from their home in Bushnell to Harris’ Dade City farm.

They’ve been coming here every season since 1988, when their kids were still little.

The retired couple know these sand pines aren’t the perfect Christmas tree. One year, they cut one that was so crooked, it had to be nailed to the wall with strings to keep it from falling over.

After about 20 minutes of browsing the neat row of pines, the Vanns settled on a tree. The one they picked was lopsided with sparse branches on one side and thicker ones crowding the other end.

That didn’t bother them. Connie Vann planned to hide the pine’s “bad side” by tucking it in a corner of their house.

“There’s no such thing as an ugly Christmas tree,” she said.

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative founded by the Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and the Tampa Bay Times.

Jack Prator | The Tampa Bay Times
More On This Topic