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Christmas spirit endures in Merced County: Sales bring joy at Christmas tree farms

Merced County's Christmas tree farmers say a sluggish economy didn't bring out the shopping Grinch in consumers this year.

Christmas tree-producing weather has been favorable, resulting in solid sales, according to local farmers.

Sam Minturn, owner of Hilmar Forest and executive director of the California Christmas Tree Association, a statewide group that represents Christmas tree suppliers, said this year's tree sales have surpassed 2010.

"We had a lot of weather damage last year. We were hit with a lot of snow on opening weekend," Minturn said.

The Christmas tree season starts on the day after Thanksgiving and runs through mid-December. When the retail tree season is roughly a month long, a little bit of weather can make or break the operation.

But while rain on the storefront can be a downer, rain on the trees during the growing season helps a lot. And that's what growers received this year.

"Oh, it's been great!" said Bob Tarbell, 71, who started the Atwater Jordan Christmas Forest in 2003. "The rain helped (the trees) a lot this winter. The trees look really good this year. They grew more. The water keeps them green. Sales have been very good. I think we've probably sold a third more than last year."

Tarbell also leases part of his 20 acres for sweet potato cultivation, and said the side business is also going well. He said the tree business has brought him closer to the surrounding community.

"One of the best things is the relationships that we've built with people over the years," he said. "It's like a reunion every Christmas."

Many of the nearly 250 Christmas tree suppliers represented by the California Christmas Tree Association import trees from other states, such as Oregon and Washington. About 80 percent of the trees offered in California come from out of state because California farmland is so expensive, said Minturn.

He noted that it often is to consumers' advantage to get a "choose and cut" locally grown tree.

"The issue we have with a lot of retail lots is they don't put their trees in water," he said. "Christmas trees need more water than a cut flower. There are very few wholesalers in Merced County. Most are coming from out of state."

According to the association, the noble fir has replaced the silver tip as the state's most popular Christmas tree. California growers' favored tree, however, is the Monterey pine, which takes only four to five years to grow, as opposed to other varieties that can take more than a decade to mature.

Real trees sold in California, which outpaced sales of artificial ones by roughly 3 to 1, can cost from about $25 up to $80, depending on the tree and if it's imported.

Merced County has three Christmas tree farms, one each in Atwater, Gustine and Hilmar. More information can be found on the Christmas Tree Association's website, Merced.

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209)385-2486 or at