If you're someone who enjoys the beauty and smell of a real Christmas tree, prepare to pull a few more bills out of your wallet this holiday season. Tree farmers from the nation's top producers in North Carolina and Oregon, who collectively shipped nearly 10 million Christmas trees in 2016, are warning that supplies are tight and prices are rising.
"Right now, there's a tree shortage. It's been coming down the line for the last eight or 10 years, or so," Jason Hupp, who helps manage Hupp Farms in Oregon, told USA Today. “So our biggest challenges are having enough trees to supply customers and just getting phone calls after phone calls after phone calls of people desperate for trees that don’t exist."
Much of the current shortage stems from an oversupply of seedlings planted during the boom years of the early 2000s. Because some varieties can take as long as 6-12 years to reach maturity, looking that far into the future can sometimes be a roll of the dice.
Unfortunately for tree farmers, the harvest for the crop placed in the ground at the turn of the century coincided with the arrival of the Great Recession. With too much product and not enough customers, many farms exited the business. Those that hung on cut back on planting seedlings as Americans invested in artificial varieties.
According to the American Christmas Tree Association, of the 100 million households displaying a tree in 2016, 81 percent opted for a fake version.
Those looking for hard-to-find-varieties may have better luck visiting u-cut farms rather than a traditional lot. (Photo: SupportPDX/Flickr)
For those traditionalists that remain, the hunt for the perfect tree — in particular for hard-to-find varieties like Noble firs — have farms around the country struggling to keep pace. It's estimated it may be another six or eight years before the industry is able to fully close the gap. Add in additional pressures from increasing droughts, wildfires and a lack of quality seedlings, and that timeframe may grow larger still.
In the meantime, growers are trying their best to gently raise prices without crippling the wallets of future customers. A poll conducted by the National Christmas Tree Association found that the "mean average" spent by consumers per tree — that's a measurement of what those who took the poll spent, not the average price of a tree — rose from $36.50 in 2008 to nearly $51 in 2015.
"I am concerned about scaring away consumers toward real trees and going toward plastic trees," grower Tom Norby of Gresham, Oregon told KUOW in Seattle. "Some growers don’t seem to be as worried about that. And they’re charging whatever they can in order to sell their trees, and that’s capitalism for you."
To gauge if the tree you're interested in will survive the holidays, experts recommend the 'sniff, lift, and snap' test. (Photo: Phil Roeder/Flickr)
To improve your chances of finding the perfect Christmas tree, experts recommend inquiring if your local farm or lot has an early reservation program. You may also have more luck at u-cut farms than with store- or lot-stocked trees. To figure out if the variety you're interested will last throughout the holiday season, Bryan Ostlund of the Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association urges consumers to "sniff, lift, and snap." He explains:
"A needle on a Christmas tree — a Nobel fir, a Douglas fir — [is] kind of like a carrot," Ostlund told Northwest News Network in 2014. "If you go to bend a nice fresh carrot that’s still full of water it snaps readily. If it’s dehydrated it going to be more, it’s going to bend much more easily. It isn’t going to snap right away."
Lifting the tree to gauge its weight is an excellent way to feel whether it's hydrated or not. As for sniffing, if the smell doesn't make you want to haul out the holly, it's probably best to move on.