By starting a new Christmas tree farm completely from scratch, Kent and Becky Evatt are bucking the trends and taking on a long-term investment years in the making.
Most Christmas tree farms are passed on to family members or sold as established farms, and not many new ones are starting up these days, according to Tim O'Conner, the executive director of the National Christmas Tree Association, based in Denver.
The organization represents hundreds of farms, 29 state and regional associations, and more than 4,000 affiliated businesses that grow and sell Christmas trees or provide related services.
"If I decide to get in the Christmas tree business from zero, it's a long process," O'Conner said recently. "It takes ten years to grow a seed to salable size, and you have to plant more each year so you have a crop staged up. It takes money, it takes time, it takes land, and all of those things are challenging. It's not an overnight business, like say planting pumpkins in the spring, where you have a crop by fall."
Kent Evatt is president of the 14-member Oklahoma Christmas Tree Association. When he decided to start Red Bird Farm on the north side of Enid, it became the furthest north and west of any of the state's tree farms, which required him to install poly-tube drip irrigation.
The farm is also the most rural, which reduces what he can charge for trees from $11 a foot, which is common in metro markets, to around $8.
It's difficult to do enterprise budgets or estimate per-tree profitability when a crop has such a long-term investment tied to it.
But for Kent and his wife Becky, the venture is about more than making money. It has a big lifestyle component to it.
"We knew we wanted our kids to grow up with faith and chores and develop the kind of work ethic that is disappearing from society," Becky explained. "We just think work ethic is a huge part of molding you into a better person. With Kent's farming background, everybody had to chip in and help out, and that's definitely what drove us to start this."
Kent grew up in northeastern Oklahoma on a conventional grain farm that is now operated by his brother. He works full-time in the engineering field in addition to growing their agritourism business.
The Evatts have totally embraced the nostalgia and old-fashioned wholesomeness a small family-owned Christmas tree farm represents. In fact, that was always part of the plan.
"We have Christmas trees, pick-your-own blackberries and grow a huge garden," Becky noted. "We butchered our own chickens this year, and we have egg layers. So in a way it's like grandma's farm all over again."
Their goal from the start was to find some kind of specialty crop they could raise on 14 acres. A vision soon formed of creating the quintessential postcard-perfect tree farm, complete with a traditional farmhouse and iconic red barn that would double as a vintage store and classroom for hosting hands-on workshops.
"We like to look at things from yesteryear and make them fit our modern life, so it was fun sitting down together and drawing up the plans," she said.
In 2018, they entered and won a business plan competition, sponsored by their local Career Tech center, which gave their venture a significant boost. Frontage along U.S. Highway 81 has also been helpful in bringing attention to their eye-catching, Instagram-worthy farmstead.
Being diversified is one of the keys to making a small tree farm profitable, O'Conner observed.
"A lot of our members in the choose-and-cut sector are doing other things," he said. "Pumpkins have become pretty significant, but there's also corn mazes, flowers, weddings during the summer, all kinds of seasonal things that bring people out to the farm."
The Evatts take seriously their role in re-connecting the public to the land and to a rural lifestyle that is much less common than it used to be.
"We want to hone our own self-reliance and bring as many people as we can along with us while we do that," Becky said.
"The goal of our classes is to give people a little more self-confidence to do some of this stuff on their own," Kent added.
Selling live Christmas trees has become more challenging in recent years, with production of real trees falling dramatically since the Great Recession. Older Americans are less likely to put up trees for the holidays and when they do, they often purchase artificial ones.
While the National Christmas Tree Association industry survey for 2019 won't be compiled until after the holiday season is over, last year's survey showed that around 50 percent of live trees were purchased from chain stores and retail tree lots, with about a quarter of them purchased directly from farms.
The average price consumers paid for a real tree was $78. They paid more on average for a fake tree: $104.
However, O'Connor sees a bright future for existing tree farms, as the millennial generation begins to influence the market.
"We're seeing a big resurgence of interest in real trees among millennials," he said. "They want that kind of real experience as a family that they can post on social media and share with family and friends."
Young parents today tend to prioritize authentic experiences, doing good things for the environment and knowing the story behind the products they buy, he added.
"The millennials have already changed the market to some extent, and they are continuing to have a lot of impact. They are going to want things to match up with the rest of their lives and values, and there's nothing about a plastic tree from China that does that," he said.
Most of the live tree production is currently concentrated in Oregon, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Washington. Kansas has 34 farms in its membership association, and Colorado has no formal association and less than a handful of cut-your-own farms.
In a sign of the times, some farms have even entered into the business of selling and delivering trees online, O'Conner said.
"Amazon famously entered the market last year," he noted. "But still, a very small percentage of trees are sold online, probably less than 2 percent. It's a convenience for some people, but it's not typically the way the industry does business."
"It really is all about the experience of it," he added. "I think if someone was close to Denver or Boulder, they could do really well with it, but the challenge of that initial ten-year waiting period and the continuous investment over time is still a high bar to clear."
Back at Red Bird Farm, the Evatts are looking forward to selling the first of their homegrown trees next year. For this holiday season, they brought in pre-cut trees, and even spray-painted a few them orange and purple (with special nontoxic, nonflammable paint) to honor popular college sports teams in the area. They are already looking ahead to hosting more workshops in the new year and offering an outdoor Easter egg hunt in the spring.
"We've got a lot of plans in our head to expand and make things better every year," Becky said.