With Christmas just a few weeks away, Sussex families are flocking to local tree farms to pick out the living room centerpiece under which presents will sit and memories will be made.

With Christmas just a few weeks away, Sussex families are flocking to local tree farms to pick out the living room centerpiece under which presents will sit and memories will be made.

For many, the act of choosing and hauling a real Christmas tree has become a yearly tradition, one not to be replaced by pulling the artificial tree out of the attic.

“We’ve been here for 22 years and we’ve had two generations of families come through to get their trees,” said Shelly Sposato of Sposato’s Pine Hollow Christmas Tree Farm in Milton. “They come for the experience – they choose a tree, they go on a hayride and they have their picture taken in our big sleigh.”

According to the National Christmas Tree Association, throughout last year’s holiday season Americans purchased 24.5 million real Christmas trees valued at about $1.01 billion. In comparison, 10.9 million artificial trees valued at about $790 million were purchased. The average prices of real and fake Christmas trees were $40.30 and $72.50, respectively.

A 2007 agriculture census conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that Christmas trees are grown in almost every U.S. state. Delaware ranks 40th for Christmas trees harvested, with a total of 10,819; 41st for tree acreage, with a total of 385; and 42nd for operations that sell trees, with a total of 41.

Although Delaware’s Christmas tree production is nominal, local farmers say this year’s crop is extremely healthy thanks to the summer’s heavy rainfall.

Meteorologists with Accuweather.com say the greater Sussex County area saw 27.05 inches of rain between June 1 and Aug. 31. The normal amount of rainfall for that time period is 12.63 inches.

Paul Schreppler, president of the Delaware Christmas Tree Growers Association, said the First State’s sandy soil helped ensure the Christmas trees’ survival.

“The trees are not a lot taller; but they are much fuller and of better quality,” Schreppler said. “Everything has to have water to survive and the more the trees get, the better they turn out, especially in Delaware’s light soil, which dries out very quickly.”

Some of the country’s top Christmas tree producers – such as Oregon, North Carolina and Pennsylvania – are experiencing significant losses due to Phytophthora root rot, a water mold.

“I know guys who lost as many as 3,000 trees,” said Don Hallowell, owner of Don’s Tree Farm in Bridgeville, which imports trees from North Carolina and Pennsylvania. “If a tree stands in water, it’s going to die. We were very fortunate because we have really good drainage.”

Hallowell planted his first trees in 2009, making them too young to harvest. He estimates it will be about two years before he can offer “cut your own” trees. Growing on Hallowell’s farm are Douglas fir, Canaan fir, white pine and Norway spruce. In general, a Christmas tree needs to grow for anywhere between seven and 10 years before it’s ready to be harvested.

Hallowell’s biggest seller, the Fraser fir, must be trucked in from North Carolina or Pennsylvania.

“We don’t grow Fraser firs in Delaware,” he said. “It’s a tree that wants to be grown in a cooler, mountainous climate.”

The same goes for Sposato’s in Milton, where the popular Fraser firs are from North Carolina. However Sposato’s is able to offer “you choose, we cut” trees, wherein trees are chosen by families and cut, shaken, drilled and baled by the farm.

Leah Maher, of Lewes, got her family’s tree this year from Sposato’s and said it’s just not Christmas without a real tree.

“I prefer the smell,” Maher said. “I also prefer the falling needles, even though I have to clean them up.”