WILLS POINT, Texas -- Even on her own farm, Beverly Chapman has trouble finding a Christmas tree she’s proud to show off.
“There are some lone survivors,” she says, “you just have to look for them.”
On these fields, the dead far outnumber the living. Chapman’s farm, Lone Star Pines near Wills Point, lost two-thirds of its trees this summer. More than 15,000 trees at her farm alone died.
“It took a long time to grow these trees, and just a very short time for them to die,” she said.
A record-hot summer this year caused tree farmers across Texas to now face acres of brown, wilting Christmas trees. Less than 11 inches of rain fell in Texas this year, compared to annual average of 24 inches.
“There’s hundreds of thousands of trees dying,” said Travis Miller, a drought expert at Texas A&M University. “We’re looking at a [...] one-in-a-500-year kind of drought.”
Some farms didn’t even bother opening this season. Others are relying on imported trees from North Carolina to draw customers.
Chapman has rows of the green firs standing outside her gift shop. She insists the farm is still worth a visit, even if you don’t actually cut down your own tree.
“A lot of people come out here to see Santa Claus,” Mrs. Chapman said, “go on a hay ride, and get a pre-cut tree.”
Despite the blow, many farmers insist they’re not raising prices. Chapman admits her surviving trees aren’t worth more and many farmers frankly don’t want to further scare away customers.
“They’re not as pretty and not as good,” said Chapman as she fluffed one of her green, living trees. “They’re not a pretty green; they’re not real full... that’s one reason we didn’t go up on the prices.”
Worried customers are avoiding real trees this Christmas; the tree industry insists it’s not facing a catastrophe. Marshall Cathey, president of the Texas Christmas Tree Growers Association, said most of its farms are operating normally.
“People are open,” he said. “People are selling trees.”
Cathey, who owns the 50-acre Elves Farm in Denison, said he lost only about 10 percent of his trees. He said some growers used extensive irrigation lines to keep their trees alive.
Still, families hoping for a homegrown tree to cut down will have a harder time finding one. Plus, since firs and pines generally only grow about a foot a year, the drought’s effect will be felt for years to come.
Chapman plans to plant up to 10,000 saplings next month - ten times what she would plant in a normal year - in an effort to replenish her supply.
A big risk, she realizes, unless the drought breaks.
“We don’t know,” she said. “It’s a gamble you take.”