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Early spring, May cold snap hard on balsam firs

Keith Stevens dusts snow off a balsam fir tree Tuesday at a tree-selling site next to the Nodak store on Main Avenue in Fargo. Dave Wallis / The Forum

DULUTH, Minn. - If Christmas for your family just isn't complete without a perfect, fragrant, fresh balsam fir, here's some advice:

Better shop now.

A warm, early spring followed by an early May cold snap damaged the growing tips of balsam firs in Christmas tree farms from Minnesota to Maine, said Jan Donelson, executive director of the Minnesota Christmas Tree Association.

"There wasn't a grower that didn't experience it," Donelson said.

The damaged trees usually survive, though they may have grown unevenly through the summer and won't be suitable to sell, said Doug Hoffbauer, who has been growing Christmas trees at his farm in Duluth since 1985.

Starting the day after Thanksgiving - the traditional start of the Christmas tree-selling season - Hoffbauer said he would be taking about 200 fewer balsam trees to markets in Duluth and Superior.

"The frost nipped a couple hundred trees," Hoffbauer said. "This year I expect we'll be sold out early."

The balsam fir issue is likely to have more of an impact in Minnesota than in North Dakota, where tree farms focus on spruces and pines. Kevin Hartl, the owner of a tree farm near Enderlin, N.D., said he can't recall seeing balsam firs grown in the state.

"The soil here isn't very conducive to growing them," he said.

It was a stellar growing year for most other species of Christmas trees, Donelson said. Plentiful rainfall around Minnesota meant the spruce and pines grew full and heavy. But the balsam firs, which give off that heady fresh-tree aroma, tend to be the most popular seller, Hoffbauer said.

Overall, Donelson said the damage was far from catastrophic. But if customers have their hearts set on a fresh balsam, they might not want to wait until Christmas Eve.

Growing Christmas trees is just like growing any other crop, Donelson said: The tree - and the tree farmer - are at the mercy of the weather.

Terry Howard got lucky with his 40-acre tree farm, Bough Wow Christmas Trees, near Orr. He sells about 2,000 wholesale varieties of fir, spruce and pine to locations from International Falls to the Twin Cities.

This spring, Howard hoped desperately for rain, to no avail. But that meant the Bough Wow balsam firs buds hadn't started growing when the May freeze descended. The dormant buds escaped much damage.

"That's the one thing that saved me," Howard said. "I thought it was a curse, and it turned out to be a blessing."

While Hoffbauer and his wife, Lois, also grow vegetables for sale at area farmers markets, he said Christmas trees are his favorite crop. He said the market for live trees has stabilized in the past 25 years or so; the people who buy live trees now usually don't switch to artificial trees.

"This isn't just a commercial venture," Hoffbauer said. "I enjoy selling the product. Christmas trees bring more smiles than other crops."