The Christmas tree industry has its ups and downs, like any other agricultural sector. The number of farms and trees harvested in the U.S. has fallen in the past 5 years, according to the USDA’s Census of Agriculture for 2007.

Some experts blame an aging base of growers, diseases that delayed harvests in eastern states, or a glut of trees planted in the Pacific Northwest that is being corrected. USDA figures don’t show how many acres were planted during the period.

Regardless of market conditions, the Christmas tree industry has a loyal base of producers, and there’s a strong demand in the U.S. and Canada for authentic Christmas trees.

Farms can be started with as little as 10 acres, but more land is needed if a producer wants the farm to provide income. Many producers are part-time and work regular jobs while taking care of their tree farms on the weekends.

Experts warn that Christmas tree farms are a long-term investment, not a “get-rich-scheme.” It takes at least 8 years before trees can be cut, and it’s probably closer to 12-13 years, says John Ahl, co-owner of Northern Christmas Trees & Nursery in Merrillan, Wis. “You’ve got to pick your markets and make predictions 10-12 years in advance, which is difficult to do.”

The main competition for producers is artificial Christmas trees, which have gained popularity for their convenience and longevity. About 17 million U.S. households purchase artificial trees each year, compared to 31 million households that buy real trees.

Real Christmas trees sold in the U.S. in ’07 had a retail value of $1.3 billion, compared to $1.2 billion for artificial trees.

Ahl’s advice to equipment dealerships interested in working with Christmas tree farms is to contact producer associations in their states to find out when their trade shows are held. Christmas tree producers are a unique crowd, he says, because they make most of their equipment purchases at trade shows from vendors who understand their unique needs.

“If dealers don’t attend trade shows, it’s more difficult, because there aren’t many dealerships out there who can tell you ‘Here’s what you need,’ ” Ahl says. “The dealers who are really interested become knowledgeable and come to the shows.”

Rick Dungey, public relations manager for the National Christmas Tree Assn., says major suppliers like Kubota, New Holland and John Deere have come to the association’s national trade show in the past, and sprayer manufacturers like Jacto and Superb Horticulture/AgTec were among the ag-related suppliers scheduled to exhibit in 2009.

A curious equipment dealer who isn’t afraid to take a risk might be rewarded with some new, loyal customers by attending one of the shows, Dungey says. “Most farms are getting 1,000-1,100 trees an acre. Even with a 10-acre operation, that’s more than 10,000 trees on the ground. That’s a lot of plants to take care of.”