Christmas trees to cost a little more this year

Published on Monday, 1 December 2014 22:48 - Written by Staff and Wire Reports

Nationwide, Christmas trees likely will cost a little more this year, and growers like John Tillman say it’s about time.

Six years of decreased demand and low prices put many growers out of business. Those who withstood the downturn are relieved they survived

“I’m awful proud to still be in the Christmas tree business,” said Tillman, who ships up to 20,000 trees each fall from nine fields south of Olympia, Washington. “We lost a lot of farmers who didn’t make it through.”

Locally, East Texas tree growers said the recent drought was tough on business, but it’s over now, and they’re able to provide some holiday cheer without raising prices.

“We’re over the drought; trees look great, we’ve got a great selection out in the field,” Nancy Wiggins of Plantation Pines Farm in Tyler, said. “We’re still using the 2011 price list, so our prices haven’t gone up. But sure, I can understand why they’re up in other regions.”

Her Virginia pines and Leyland cypress trees cost about the same, at $6 to $7 per foot. She also has some premium Frasier firs, shipped in from North Carolina, at $9 per foot.

National prices vary according to the variety of tree, but growers this year will see about $20 per tree, $2 more than the last several years, according to Bryan Ostlund, executive director of the Salem, Oregon-based Pacific Northwest Tree Association. Prices will likely rise as the holidays near and supply decreases.

Consumers looking to deck their home could pay a little more than last year, but costs vary widely depending on factors such as transportation, tree-lot rental space and big-box retailers’ demand that prices remain stable. For example, a 6-foot Douglas fir in Oregon, which grows about one-third of the nation’s Christmas trees, could sell for $25 while a similar tree hauled to Southern California might go for $80.

Small tree-farm owners who sell straight to customers aren’t as affected by the factors increasing prices to consumers nationally. Locally, growers say they’re more dependent on the weather than on national price trends.

“We’re having a great weekend,” Jesilyn Hatch, of Trail Creek Farm in Lindale, said. “There are a lot of customers out picking trees, and everyone’s having a good time. We opened early this year because of the weather, and if the weather holds, that’s a pretty good indicator of how we’ll do this year.”

Heavy snow last week slowed the shipment of trees from Michigan, which ranks third in production and supplies much of the Midwest and parts of the South. In some loading yards, stacks of trees awaiting shipment were covered with up to 2 feet of snow.

“Getting the snow off was more work than loading the trees,” said Dan Wahmhoff, co-owner of a nursery in southwestern Michigan. “It was definitely a challenge — wind and snow and cold, trucks were getting stuck — but we made it through.”

In the coming years, growers expect the supply of trees to remain stable with prices gradually increasing, in part because it takes six to seven years for a seedling to grow large enough to sell.

Even with the increase, most growers are being paid less now than in the mid-2000s, when trees from new and expanded farms hit the market as demand fell. And the industry still faces challenges, as competition from artificial tree manufacturers and other factors have led to a drop in trees harvested, from 20.8 million in 2002 to 17.3 million in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The National Christmas Tree Association, based in Missouri, has encouraged growers to offer more options that meet the needs of younger people who live in urban areas and don’t have space for a towering tree, Eexecutive Director Rick Dungey said. More growers are realizing that if they offer different looks — such as a tree that could fit on a coffee table or one thin enough to squeeze into a narrow room — people will buy them, Dungey said.

“There are more options and choices out there,” he said.