COVENTRY, R.I. -- This December could be one of the last few busy seasons at Horatio Chase's 39-acre Christmas tree farm.
The 85-year-old man is still serving apple cider to customers, watching as workers bale trees for car rides home, and answering the farm's phone. But he isn't planting any more trees, and he estimates that he'll run out in five more years.
Chase isn't alone, according to state statistics. Many farmers are leaving the Christmas tree business, a sector that appears to be declining in Rhode Island even as it grows nationwide.
Industry watchers say that a wave of retirements, coupled with the loss of tax incentives, has reduced the number of Christmas tree farmers from about 800 in 1980 to 700 by 2003, according to figures from the Department of Environmental Management.
Officials at the Rhode Island Christmas Tree Growers Association have seen their membership dip by 150 in 1980 to 60 today.
Christmas tree farms started sprouting across the state two decades ago, when Rhode Island officials encouraged dairy farmers to take advantage of federal tax breaks by turning dairy pastures into tree farms, said Chase, a former president of the tree growers' association.
A state law passed at about the same time also set lower property tax rates for agricultural land, which further protected farmers' profits.
But the federal tax break was repealed in 1986, prompting some farmers to start leaving the business. Many started their tree farms as a second career, and they are now facing retirement age.
Chase's son plans to use part of the family farm to grow sugar maples for his own brand of syrup.
But he does not intend to keep the Christmas tree business going.
Dave Henry, an insurance salesman who owns the 100-acre Henry's Tree Farm in Scituate, R.I., said the nature of the product limits the selling season.
"It is great business for 18 days in December, and then the farm isn't making any money for the rest of the year," he said.