NEW CANEY, Texas (AP) - Dry, brown grass crunches underfoot as David Barfield walks through his 45-acre Christmas tree farm pointing at evergreens covered with brittle, rust-colored needles.
"Dead tree, dead tree, dead tree," he says, shaking his head at dry timber he hoped would be chopped down by parents with excited children.
Instead, Mother Nature delivered the Grinch in the form of a historic drought that has killed thousands of trees across Texas and Oklahoma. Some died of thirst. Others were destroyed by wildfires, whose breadth and intensity were magnified when wind swept the flames across parched landscape.
Associated Press photo
David Barfield checks a dying tree at his Christmas tree farm in New Caney, Texas. This year’s historic drought has killed thousands of trees on Barfield’s farm and across Texas and Oklahoma.
Most farmers plan to import trees from North Carolina to supplement any they have left, said Marshall Cathey, president of the Texas Christmas Tree Growers Association. They say they aren't planning to raise prices because consumers are reluctant to pay more than $40 or $50 for a Christmas tree, especially in the poor economy.
But families hoping for a homegrown tree to cut down will have a harder time finding one, and dozens of farmers are struggling. Possibly most painful for these growers are the deaths of the youngest saplings, which guarantee the drought's effect will be felt for years to come.
"It's depressing, it really is," said Barfield, 53. "This was going to be our retirement."
He and his wife, Karen, 49, bought the farm about six years ago with dreams of retiring from Texas' oil fields and spending their final years peddling the Christmas spirit with fresh-cut trees, marshmallow roasts and hayrides in a red-and-white sleigh. They planted 20 acres of evergreen trees.
Now, barely two years after Karen Barfield retired to work the farm, she has returned full-time to her job selling explosion-proof enclosures to the oil industry. David Barfield has increased his hours doing part-time electronic work. Instead of selling some 400 homegrown trees as they do in a good year, they will be lucky to sell 100 - nearly all Frasier firs brought in from North Carolina.
And they're not certain that will be enough to cover their property taxes. Barfield says he can only charge $50 for a North Carolina fir - just $10 more than he pays for them.
"Eight (trees) died within the last week," Barfield said, continuing his walk through his farm in New Caney. "These were all green a week ago. The drought has been hurting us real bad."
But at least he and his wife have other income. Others have not fared as well.
"We lost probably 90 percent of our trees," said Jean Raisey, 79, who's run a 10-acre Christmas tree farm in Purcell, Okla., with her husband since 1985. The other 10 percent are dying now, she said.
"We've had to hire a contractor and pull all the dead and all the live trees," she said. "And we're out of business."
Cathey, who owns the 50-acre Elves Farm in Denison, Texas, a town about 75 miles north of Dallas, said he has spoken to many of Texas' 120 Christmas tree farmers in recent months. Long stretches of triple-degree heat, he said, harmed the trees as much as the lack of rain.
And the drought has been bad. In Texas, less than 11 inches of rain fell this year compared to an annual average of almost 24 inches. In Oklahoma, there has been about 18.7 inches of rain this year compared to a long-term average of 30 inches. All trees have been hard-hit by the lack of rain.
"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, and so it's weeding out the ones that can't survive this kind of extreme conditions," he added.