MISSISSIPPI STATE, Miss. — Mississippi Christmas tree growers had an excellent growing season this year and have high hopes for a happy holiday. Steve Dicke, Christmas tree specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said the trees were able to use nearly all the heavy rains that came throughout the year.

"We hope it dries out sometime so the customers can get out in the fields and cut their own trees, but until harvest, we're not really concerned about it," Dicke said.

The Mississippi Christmas Tree Growers Association reported sales in 2001 of 120,000 trees with a retail value of $4.2 million. Dicke said about 45 percent of Mississippians have a real tree, and of these, about half are grown in-state.

Prices this year are expected to be normal, with a 6- to 7-foot tree selling for $4 to $5 a foot and a large, 10-foot-plus tree selling for $7 to $8 a foot. Most Mississippi Christmas tree farms are choose-and-cut farms where customers walk through the lot, select the tree they want and cut it themselves.

Primary varieties grown are Virginia pine, Eastern red cedar, Leyland cypress and Arizona cypress. The majority of the farms are in the southern part of the state.

"Most people will buy from a grower within 30 miles of them, but some of our growers say their customers may drive more than 60 miles to cut trees on their farms," Dicke said.

Tree growers fought a non-stop battle with fungus because of excessive rain followed by dry spells this summer. Dicke said measures have been established to allow growers to control the disease without it damaging their crops.

Wesley Bass, owner of Bass Trees and Supply, Inc., in Columbia, Miss., said growers had to start a fungicide program in March and spray every three weeks to keep the fungus under control.

"It was an unusual year. We had several series of wet then dry spells," Bass said. "We had the wettest July we ever had, then it turned off dry again and we went six weeks without any rain. Later, we got a tropical storm and a hurricane back-to-back, and because of all the rain, it blew down a lot of 1- and 2-year-old trees."

Bass has a 10- to 12-acre choose-and-cut farm growing Virginia pines, Leyland cypress, Arizona cypress and Eastern red cedars. About 65 percent of his sales are in Leyland cypress. He said the average tree farmer plants about 700 trees per acre. About 60 percent of the pines are quality enough to be sold and more than 90 percent of the Leylands can be sold.

Bass also has a retail lot on his farm where he imports cut trees for sale. He said a late freeze in North Carolina caused growers there to lose as much as half this year's crop of Frazier furs, the No. 1 cut Christmas tree that is shipped nationally.

"This will affect Mississippi growers because we're in competition with the tree lots," Bass said. "Most growers here sell to the family who comes out and they get to walk through the farm and cut the tree, but the retail lots' supply of Frazier furs may be down."

Bonnie Coblentz writes for Mississippi State University Ag Communications.