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State's Christmas tree farms reeling from Superstorm Sandy

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Wet, heavy snow created by October's "Frankenstorm" could mean big losses for state Christmas tree farmers and could put one of the state's longest-running growers out of business.

John Armstrong of French Creek Farms said he does not have an accurate count yet but estimates he lost between 10,000 and 20,000 trees during the snowstorm. He lost at least 10 acres of trees on the 50-acre farm, and there are around 1,200 trees on each acre.

"It just ripped the whole tops out of the trees," he said. "The bigger the tree, the worse they were destroyed. Some whole fields will have to be cut."

While Armstrong said it's difficult at this point to put a price on the loss, here's some basic math: French Creek Farms sell most of its trees at wholesale, about half the retail price. If he lost 10,000 trees at $20 apiece - and that's a best-case-scenario estimate - Armstrong would lose $200,000.

In reality, he could lose much more.

Armstrong's business at the Capitol Market has not been affected, although he doesn't have as many white pine trees as usual. French Creek Farms has had to close some smaller tree lots, however, and had to cancel many wholesale orders, including some to local Lions Club and Boy Scout groups.

Although Armstrong's Upshur County farm is accustomed to large snowfalls, the snow generated by the "Frankenstorm" - created when rain from Hurricane Sandy collided with a cold front from Canada and a winter storm from the West - was unusually heavy.

"I've never seen snow that heavy in my life," Armstrong, 57, said.

French Creek Farms is one of the few tree growers in the Mountain State that offer long-needle varieties like white pine, scotch pine and concolor fir.

Those long-needle trees hold more snow than their short-needled cousins, weighing down the branches and breaking them off.

Armstrong said the yard at his farm received 28 inches of snow, but some of the property's highest hills got 30 to 34 inches.

Some of the damaged trees had been growing on Armstrong's property for a quarter century.

"You leave some for the future, but the future kind of got destroyed," he said. "They were beautiful trees, ready to cut."

Shorter trees could be salvageable. Armstrong said trees 5 feet or shorter still have a few years before they're ready for market, so he may be able to trim the broken parts.  

He said most modern customers want a Christmas tree that looks like a fake tree, with a perfect triangular shape and not a branch out of place.

"When it gets damaged, it doesn't bring the price," he said.

Armstrong said he still has enough trees to run his Capitol Market operation for at least three years. After that, he's not sure what will happen.

"At my age, I may just quit."

He said expenses - transportation costs, rent at the farmer's market, pay for hired help - already make Christmas tree farming a less-than-lucrative business.

"I don't really want to quit," Armstrong said. "I love to do trees. If it was just the damn money, I would have quit a long time ago."

Armstrong's father, French, sold the farm's first Christmas tree in 1966. Armstrong started in the business in 1972, after selling a tree he grew as a 4-H project.

Al Tolliver, owner of Crickmer Farms in Danese, said about 1,000 of his trees were damaged by the snowstorm. He expects to salvage many of those trees, however.

The eastern Fayette County farm received at least 30 inches of snow, but because Crickmer Farms grows short-needled Fraser firs, the trees did not hold as much snow. Instead of sticking near the top and breaking those branches off, Tolliver said the snow drifted to the trees' middle branches.

Those branches eventually broke off, but Tolliver said he probably could trim the broken sections to allow new growth.

"We'll be able to recover most of them, but it'll take a year or two of growth," he said.

Still, Tolliver's business has been affected by the storm. He had enough trees to supply his Capitol Market operation but, like Armstrong, had to cancel wholesale orders. Tolliver couldn't supply trees to the Charleston Fire Department's annual tree sale.

Other tree growers escaped damage.

Marvin Edwards, who runs Whispering Pine Tree Farm near Point Pleasant and sells trees at the Capitol Market, said his farm didn't receive any snow at all.

Another Capitol Market seller, Kolen Lilly of Lilly's Landscaping, said his Mercer County farm received around 30 inches of snow, but it appears none of his quarter-million trees were affected.

"It didn't hurt mine. Thank God," he said.

Deputy State Forester Greg Cook said the state Division of Forestry has not received any reports of major damages to state forests.

"It would be very localized if anything," he said. "It was just kind of hit and miss all over."

Contact writer Zack Harold at 304-348-7939 or zack.harold@dailymail.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ZackHarold.


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