NEW HAMPTON --- Deer decimated a Christmas tree farm on the outskirts of town, but the owner isn't letting the loss ruin her holiday spirit.
Jan Pacovsky is usually working long days this time of year, and loving every minute of it. There's nothing better than watching happy families pick out the perfect Fraser fir to enhance the holiday experience, she said.
For the first time in 46 years, Pacovsky is spending the "most fun time of year" at home instead of Pine Acres. And she will be for years to come.
In January, hungry deer ate nearly every needle off an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 trees --- her entire inventory. Eight acres of mostly extra-large toothpicks with branches remain, though a few still have tops.
"We have a very sad-looking Christmas tree farm, if you can call it that. They cleaned us out in a week," said Pacovsky, who owns the business with her husband, Mel. "It's kind of a void in our life."
Family members checked the farm in early January, and the trees were fine. Two weeks later, Pacovsky's son checked again and found bare trees and an estimated 175 deer bedded down.
Losing $75,000 to $80,000 worth of trees --- no insurance is available --- is bad, but Pacovsky is still happy. Her husband recently beat cancer and her son survived an accidental gunshot wound while hunting.
"This is just a little bump in the road. I'm thankful for what we've got," Pacovsky said.
Still, the director of the Iowa Christmas Tree Growers Association doesn't want any of the 100 other farms statewide to suffer the same fate. With 1,500 acres devoted to Christmas trees in Iowa and a healthy deer population, she urges other growers to be extremely vigilant to protect the $1 million industry.
The Pacovskys replanted a portion of the farm earlier this year. More will be replaced in coming years. It takes about five to six years to grow a 6-foot pine or fir.
The couple plans to erect a 8-foot fence around the perimeter of the farm to keep deer out. In the mean-time, hunting on the property is encouraged with permission.
Christmas tree growers and wildlife experts say avoiding deer damage is virtually impossible. Growers can't recall an entire farm being destroyed, though.
People can take steps to protect valuable trees.
Deer repellent spray, wire and electric fences, planting food plots or providing other nourishment and hunting are some of the most effective methods.
Robert Moulds, owner of Wapsie Pines Tree Farm near Fairbank, finds feeding deer during the winter is the best way to protect his 25-acre farm. He spends about $1,400 a year to keep three feeders filled with distillers grain, a co-product of making ethanol, and cracked corn.
Moulds said he limits losses to a couple of hundred trees a year out of 30,000 to 35,000. He's counted as many as 425 deer within a one-mile radius of his property.
"We fight the problem year in and year out. As long as they have something to eat ... there's still damage, but not to a (great) extent," Moulds said.
When deep snow covers the state, like the last two years, experts say deer feed on trees because finding grain in fields or other food in the ground is difficult. Conifers are a favorite target.
Tom Litchfield, Iowa Department of Natural Resources deer biologist, said needles provide adequate nutrition and a "full" feeling.
"It's better than nothing," he said.
Iowa's deer herd this spring was estimated at 295,000 before fawns were born. The post-harvest goal is 250,000, Litchfield said.
Farmers suffering losses of at least $1,000 from deer can apply for extra deer depredation licenses from the DNR to thin herds on their property.