BORDEN, Ind. (WDRB) – For the last four decades, Mike Meyer has grown and sold cut-your-own evergreen trees on his sprawling farm in Floyd County, Ind. But when he finishes selling this season’s Scotch and white pines, he plans to quietly close Meyer Christmas Trees.

Meyer and his wife planted their last crop around 2010, content to let those trees mature and then stop the painstaking summer shearing and other tedious work. Now 71, Meyer wants to enjoy some down time.

“It’s going to be nice to retire,” he said, standing amid his remaining 1,000 or so trees. “But we’re going to miss all the people.”

Meyer’s decision to exit the holiday business is being echoed across Indiana and Kentucky, where Christmas tree farms and acres are dwindling, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s most recent data, from 2012.

There were 588 acres of trees on 120 farms in Kentucky in 2012 – a loss of about 400 acres and 20 farms from 2007. Indiana lost 670 acres and about 30 farms during that same time. And growers in the two states say more operations have shuttered in recent years.

That trend is largely mirrored across the U.S., where the total acreage of Christmas trees dropped by 10 percent from 2007 to 2012. Only nine added more acres.

Industry observers say reduced plantings during the Great Recession have led to a national tree shortage, resulting in some farm owners reporting higher and earlier demand than in years past.

Like other types of agriculture, the Christmas tree industry is under constant threat of sprawl, aging farm owners and the challenges of luring young people to the business, said Doug Hundley, seasonal spokesman for the National Christmas Tree Association trade group.

There’s also a basic reality: Unlike quick-growing annual crops, evergreen trees typically take at least seven years to reach the desired size of six feet or more.

Some farmers have quit altogether, he said, while those who remain have battled a public appetite for artificial trees and a recession in the late 2000s that curbed spending – forcing growers to keep some trees in their fields and delay planting new ones.

“When we couldn’t get the harvestable trees out of the field, we couldn’t get new ones in,” said Hundley, who has raised Fraser fir trees in western North Carolina since the early 1980s.

In Kentucky, a statewide growers’ group has seen its membership decline to the point where a meeting scheduled for this fall was canceled, said Margery Baldwin, owner of Baldwin Farms in Richmond, Ky.

Her farm is one of about 15 growers affiliated with the Kentucky Christmas Tree Association, which once had about 50 members, Baldwin said. She attributed the drop to many growers deciding to retire, unable to convince a younger generation to enter the business.

“There’s just not enough young farmers taking this up,” said Baldwin, who at 72 has been selling trees for more than 30 years. “It’s a long return for your effort and your dollar.”

Baldwin raises mostly white pine and Norway spruce. She was forced to cut down scores of blue spruce trees that were sickened by a fungus, but supplemented that with about 200 Fraser firs trees from western North Carolina. 

While artificial trees have made inroads, she is quick to repeat an adage among growers: “A traditional Christmas begins with a real tree.”

And sometimes, as is the case at her pick-your-own farm, that means tales of frozen Christmas trees and  frigid temperatures.

“Having an experience with your family is just so special,” she said. “So people are bringing their children and wanting to start this family tradition of cutting a real tree. And it’s terrific. They make memories that last a lifetime.”

Baldwin said sales at her farm have been brisk this season – in part because other farms in the area have closed – and could result in her inventory running out as early as this weekend.

The same rush on trees is happening at Werkmeister Christmas Tree Farm in Bullitt County, where owner Elizabeth Werkmeister Shafer counted five area farms that folded in about the last five years.

After opening on Black Friday, she said the farm sold 120 trees from its fields over a two-day period and had just 17 Fraser firs left from 200 imported from Virginia.

A second-generation grower, Werkmeister Shafer said she plans to carry on the work started by her father, Robert Werkmeister, who began planting trees in 1984 after previously raising cattle and poultry. He died suddenly last February.

“Part of it is keeping my father’s legacy alive,” she said. “As long as I’m physically able, I’m going to keep doing it.”

With fewer trees available to meet the demand this Christmas, retail prices are expected to rise by 5 percent to 10 percent, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.

But that increase comes after some growers – like those in western North Carolina – saw prices decline over the last decade, said Hundley, the association’s seasonal spokesman. It was only in the past two years that wholesale prices have climbed, he said.

“That’s very good news,” he said.

Gary Jecker, owner of Christmas Tree Lane at Louisville’s Waterfront Park, said he traveled 4,000 miles to North Carolina and Wisconsin starting in August to choose the Fraser firs he sells near the Great Lawn. He also carries white pines he grows himself in Lanesville, Ind., stocking about 1,000 trees in all.

He noticed fewer trees in the North Carolina mountains and had to haggle with growers, some of whom raised their prices by $20 per tree. And it may be a while until wholesale prices fall.

“It’s going to take seven or eight years, but we’ll get back to a reasonable price so it won’t be so hard buying,” Jecker said.

At his lot, he said, customers are buying trees earlier than usual.

Terry Netherton, who has been buying at Waterfront Park for years, paid $65 for a Fraser fir tree last week.

“This is my dad’s tradition,” he said. “He always bought a real tree. We don’t believe in artificials. He would have a heart attack if he found out that we got artificial trees.”

Reach reporter Marcus Green at 502-585-0825, mgreen@wdrb.com, on Twitter or on Facebook. Copyright 2017 WDRB News. All rights reserved.