Executive Suite: Tree farmer Lee Itzler
Elwood Christmas tree farm in Huntington is an idyllic place, a miniature forest where seedlings stand side by side with 9- or 10-footers that would grace any living room.
For owner Lee Itzler, who also works as a landscape architect and holds a degree from the state environmental science college in Syracuse, this is much more than dollars and cents. A tree takes 7 to 10 years of tending before it's salable, and he's taking no shortcuts.
A member of the Cornell Cooperative Integrated Pest Management Program, he uses minimal amounts of pesticides and binds harvested trees with biodegradable rope rather than plastic netting.
After years of stagnant sales, demand for real trees is on the rise. The National Christmas Tree Association estimated 30.8 million were sold last year, up from 27 million in 2010. A similar increase is expected this year.
Itzler's 22-acre lot, which he opened in 2007, is packed with firs, spruces and pines that sell for $10 to $15 per foot. But the real payout, he says, is personal.
"When I was a little kid there was an abandoned farm near my house, and I always used to go there," he said. "Now I have my own farm. I may not make any money at it, but it's a good place, and there's a special satisfaction."
What is the most desirable tree shape these days?
I think it depends on age. The older buyer likes a really fat, big tree. The younger people come in and ask for a slimmer tree.
Is there a difference between customers who come early in the season and those who come late?
The people who come in the first couple of weeks, they're happy people, and they're there to enjoy the entire process. Day after Thanksgiving they're here, and they're into it, they're enjoying it. As time progresses, people are just looking for a better deal.
What do you say to people who believe an artificial tree is better for the environment?
How can it possibly be better? It's made out of petroleum. If there was no demand for a live tree, this field wouldn't be here, with everything that comes from the trees, starting with the fact that they provide oxygen. Plastic is a negative from the time it is produced to the time it goes into a landfill.
What type of tree is most popular?
Fraser fir. It's a really beautiful tree, and the best part about it is that it lasts forever. If you buy one even before Thanksgiving, it will still be fresh through Christmas.
NAME: Lee Itzler, owner, Elwood Christmas tree Farm/Pumpkin Farm, Huntington.
WHAT IT DOES: Sell precut and cut-your-own Christmas trees.
ROLES THEY PLAY: Cultivating, cutting, selling.
REVENUES: $25,000, anticipated for 2012