KULA - Upcountry Christmas tree growers are hoping the spirit of the holidays will bring them customers this year despite the island's struggling economy.
"Christmas seems to be a special thing for people whether people have money or not," said Shirley Buetler, who owns Upcountry Farms at 51 Calasa Road with her husband, Hugo. "Somehow or other people seem to want to have a tree because it's Christmas."
At Kula Botanical Garden, there's also optimism for Christmas tree sales this year, particularly after last year when torrential rains in early December flooded much of Maui, severely damaging five Kula homes, one of which was washed off its foundation.
Kula Botanical Garden President Jeffrey McCord trims a Monterey pine Tuesday. Despite a struggling island economy, Upcountry Christmas tree growers are optimistic that consumers will find room in the budgets for a fresh Christmas tree this year. Last year, the Upcountry farms suffered losses during a severe winter storm in early December.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
Pine tree fields with crops of different ages and sizes are visible in the foreground as a mature field is prepared for harvest Tuesday.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
Helen McCord, who owns Kula Botanical Garden with her husband, Warren, and son, Jeffrey, said last year's rains closed roads Upcountry, filled up a nearby gulch, blew over a tent and hurt tree sales by forcing the operation to shut down for at least two days.
With Christmas less than a month away, "we're hoping for a good year," she said. "We are hoping people will support grown on Maui."
So far, commercial orders for trees have "come in pretty good," she said.
McCord said she suspects that high shipping costs might deter some big-box stores and other organizations that sell trees from ordering as many from the Pacific Northwest this year.
"We've been around now for 35 years doing trees," she said. "We do the best we can. We have to deal with Mother Nature and the economy and everything else."
Kula Botanical Garden sells Monterey pines ranging from 4 to 20 feet tall, grown on 9 acres on Kekaulike Avenue. The business sells between 1,000 to 2,000 trees a year. Last year, 2,200 trees were planted, according to McCord.
Public sales will be held from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Dec. 5-7 and Dec. 13-14. Prices depend on a tree's height, with a 6-foot tree selling for $60. Taller trees cost more. Also available are wreaths, ornaments and artificial snow, which is a powder that turns into puffy white "snow" when water is added.
"It's the best babysitter known to man," said McCord, who maintained that children are fascinated by the snowy product. "It's fun stuff."
At Upcountry Farms, located across the highway from the Kula Fire Station, about 3 acres are set aside for Christmas trees, and only this year have the owners made trees available for sale to the general public, Buetler said.
The operation also sells Monterey pines at $10 per foot up to 10 feet tall. Trees taller than that sell for $13 a foot, she said. To help customers on a tight budget, somewhat-damaged trees may be sold at a reduced rate.
Upcountry Farms has sold trees for 12 years, but until this year it's been by invitation only, Buetler said.
"A lot of people don't know about us."
She said she plans to sell between 300 and 400 trees or until it's clear the farm will have an ample supply of various tree sizes for next Christmas.
"We get rid of all the trees we want for the year," she said. "Then, we close our doors."
By ensuring the farm has a variety of tree sizes, "we can stagger our inventory that way," she said.
Last year's heavy rains "took down a lot of trees," Buetler said. "We ended up giving them away. They would have died anyway."
Upcountry Farms will begin selling trees Saturday. It will be open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. except on Dec. 18. The business also sells other products such as jams and jellies.
At Upcountry Farms, customers can walk on the property and choose their trees.
"They pick the one they want, and then we cut it for them," she said.
A check of Central Maui businesses that usually sell Christmas trees found that Walmart already is offering Noble and Douglas firs for sale for $30 to $80, depending on size. Other stores were preparing to offer trees for sale as early as Friday.
Matson brought its first shipment of Christmas trees to Honolulu Harbor on Nov. 15. Another large shipment came in last Saturday and another is expected Saturday, according to Matson spokesman Jeff Hull. A smaller shipment is scheduled to arrive Dec. 6.
The tree shipments were inspected for invasive species, said Janelle Saneishi, spokeswoman for the state Department of Agriculture. Thirty-eight containers arrived Nov. 15 and were inspected the next day, she said. This past weekend, 98 containers arrived.
From the initial shipment, two containers were sent back to the Mainland because slugs were found, Saneishi said. This past weekend, four containers were held - two because of slugs, one for an unidentified larva and another because of problems with paperwork.
* Brian Perry can be reached at email@example.com.