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Let's All Panic Unnecessarily About Christmas Trees!
North Carolina is the second largest producer of live Christmas trees in the country. How did it get that way? And why are prices so high this year? Is there a shortage? WHAT IS HAPPENING?
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Christmas trees. They’re expensive now!
Last weekend, my family and I made our annual pilgrimage up to West Jefferson, and it’s frightening how similar our trips are year after year. We park on Main Street. We head to Boondocks Brewing for lunch and a beer. We walk over to Ashe County Cheese to my wife can get some butter for her Christmas cookies. The kids get to pick a piece of candy, and always pass over the chocolate for the most fluorescent sugar-covered gummy. Then we drive out to Frosty’s Choose and Cut. We get a ten-foot pole, then set out onto the mountainside to find our tree. Once we do, we flag down a guy with a chainsaw, who cuts it down and drives it down the mountain. We get some hot cocoa, watch as other guys tie the thing down, and drive home. We have done this every year since 2015 with hardy any variation. WE ARE CHRISTMAS TREE ROBOTS.
This year, though, the variation was in the price. I went back and checked on how much we’ve paid every year for a tree that’s just a hare under 10 feet tall:
I put the asterisk there because we didn’t actually end up buying a nine-footer, but instead paid $115 for an eight-foot-tree this year. We arrived on the first weekend in December, and most of the tall trees had already been cut down, so we walked away with a skinnier-than-normal tree that had been cut the night before. So what’s up with the price? And why is North Carolina such a big state for Christmas trees? How did we get here?
Buckle in, folks, this is gonna be a long ride.
North Carolina makes a lot of Christmas Trees
First up, you probably already knew this, but North Carolina is number two in the nation when it comes to Christmas tree production. Only Oregon grows more. Something like 99% of North Carolina’s Christmas trees are Fraser firs, which are finicky and only grow up in the mountains. The rest are different types of fir, spruce, cedar, and even allergy-friendly Leland cypress, which is are the trees you plant on your property line when you don’t want to see your neighbors.
Many of those trees come from Ashe County, home of Frosty’s and West Jefferson. In 2017, the most recent year in which USDA stats are available, nearly 1.9 million trees were cut down in that county alone.
Put another way, that’s about 70 trees for every person who lives in Ashe County. Statewide, about 40,000 acres are devoted to growing Christmas trees. That’s an area that’s the size of the city of Concord.
So, Why North Carolina?
Okay, first up, Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz was one of the first people to bring a Christmas tree from her native Germany to the English-speaking world. There you go, city of Charlotte. There’s your Charlotte connection.
North Carolina’s long been associated with the Fraser fir. John Fraser first observed his namesake tree 200-plus years ago, and first cut one down on Roan Mountain in Mitchell County back in 1808. But insofar as people actually put up Christmas Trees, they were red cedar or white pine, which has longer, soft needles. Before World War II, most people went out into the woods and cut one down themselves, put it up on Christmas Eve, and then took it down two days later.
(Most of the history here comes from “The Christmas Tree Industry in Western North Carolina,” a white paper written by extension agent Jill Sidebottom back in 2009.)
It wasn’t until after the war, when more people started moving into cities, that there became an actual Christmas tree industry, even though at first, they largely just cut down in the woods and trucked into town. At the same time, farmers in Western North Carolina, who grew things like beans, cabbage, tobacco, and cattle, were seeing their prices drop. They were looking for a new crop, and Christmas trees fit the bill.
It wasn’t an easy transition, since a Christmas tree you plant today won’t actually be ready to sell for about a decade. So, state and federal agencies helped farmers get going. The state Division of Forestry started growing Fraser fir seedlings, and others went up north to see how they did things up there:
In the mid 1950s, John Gilliam, a regional extension forester working for North Carolina State University (then known as State College) was asked to investigate growing Christmas trees as a profitable forestry practice for the mountains. He made several trips to Pennsylvania, a state that already had substantial Christmas tree production brought in by German immigrants, to learn how to grow, shear, harvest, and market Christmas trees.
The first commercial harvest of a Fraser fir happened on Roan Mountain back in 1950s. Since then, the industry has turned from foraging to farming. Trees have gotten fatter and shapelier. The Fraser fir has become the gold standard of trees, mostly because they last long and smell (Cousin Eddie voice) real nice. Even so, NC State scientists are trying to improve tree genetics to get them to last longer, resist pests and climate change, and keep their needles. A regular Christmas tree might shed up to 30% of its needles during its time in your home. Those scientists are trying to get that number down to 1%.
That’s nice and all, but why do they cost so damn much right now?
The thing I keep hearing is that there’s a shortage, and there’s no shortage of shortage headlines. But a shortage would imply that it was actually, you know, hard to find a Christmas tree for sale, like, anywhere. That hasn’t been the case. Instead, to use simple economics, supply is going down and demand is going up.
This whole cycle started during the mid-2000s, when there were actually too many trees on the market. Why? Because artificial trees started to become more and more popular. From KTLA:
Between 1995 and 2015, there was actually an oversupply of trees, [National Christmas Tree Association spokesman Doug] Hundley said.
“People were very accustomed to seeing hundreds of trees on tree lots all the way through Christmas Eve and even the week of Christmas. That’s not a good sign for us of course,” he explained. “It wasn’t that demand was down, we had just planted a lot of trees.”
The overabundance of Christmas trees meant farmers couldn’t raise prices. That made profit margins slim, so Hundley said many family-run operations were shutting down. Then the Great Recession hit and many cash-strapped farmers decided to plant fewer seedlings.
Again, since there’s roughly a decade of lag time in between planting and cutting, the effects of the early 2010s are being felt right now. In years past, you might see trees everywhere. Now, there are far fewer out there. Hundley said that’s a good thing, since fewer trees are going to waste like in years past. But it also means the cost is going up:
While a tighter supply has been a better thing for growers, Hundley admitted it means rising costs for consumers – something he said was “long overdue” after about 20 years of stagnant prices. In 2014, the NCTA logged the average price of a Christmas tree around $60. Now, Hundley said he wouldn’t be surprised if it’s somewhere around $90. That number varies greatly depending on where you live, he said.
Plus, with the pandemic in full effect last year, more and more people ended up spending more time at home, and chose to do it with a real tree. That trend appears to have carried over to this year, and tree sellers are just calling around, trying to find anything they can:
“Hundreds of people have called us and it's not only us, but every other Christmas tree farmer,” said Paul Spaulding-Smith, a wholesaler who runs Cool Springs Nursery, a 300-acre Frasier fir farm in Boone, North Carolina. “And we're just saying, ‘Unfortunately, hey, we don't have any trees [available].”
Spaulding-Smith says he and many others did start planting more trees in 2012, so there should be more trees to go around in the coming years.
Still though, you can blame a tiny bit on the whole hard-to-find-workers thing, as well as higher gas prices. But, as NC State extension agent Travis Birdsell explained, it’s not really a major supply chain issue:
I don’t see transportation issues affecting the tree industry as much, since our industry doesn’t rely on container ships to import from overseas. However, trucking is an issue that is affecting everything in our country. It is not an availability of trucks, but rather a shortage of truck drivers. This has led to an increase in price per mile. The increase in freight prices could lead to a small increase in the prices of trees this year. Transportation is somewhat challenging, but we benefit from a longstanding relationship with our truckers.
With all of that being said, though, North Carolina farmers were on pace to send out something like 5 million Christmas trees this year. That’s still a lot!
What About Reeeeally Big Trees?
Well, yeah, some folks grow them really big and fat, just in case the White House comes callin’. And surprise! They do. A father-and-son team from Peak Farms had one of their 18 1/2-foot Fraser Firs picked to go on display in the White House’s blue room. They also had a tree selected in 2008 and 2012.
Larry Smith had one of his trees picked a few years ago, and while I was at Our State, I was on a team that produced a short documentary about him. Folks, HE TALKS TO THE TREES:
Spoiler alert: Larry can slice off tree limbs like a ninja and hit a camera like ten feet away.
Still, though, the OG when it comes to White House trees from North Carolina? A dude named Kermit Johnson, who was the first full-time Christmas tree grower in Avery County. He won a national contest in Vermont in 1970, and thus was given the job of supplying the official White House trees to the Nixons in 1971. For the White House lawn, the Nixons wanted a bigass tree, which, according to The Avery Journal, was hard to find:
But Fred Whitfield of the School of Forestry Resources wouldn’t give up. He looked everywhere, and heard there might be such a tree in a remote area of Haywood County. He and another enthusiast, Marty Shaw, trudged around in the snow for several days until they found a tree that defied even the textbook. Afterwards in May of this year, notice was made of the selection. The pick is a 65-feet tall, 23.1 inches in diameter and has 60-feet of limbs. It weighs approximately 12,000 pounds.
To get it out, the forest service had to cut a road into the woods to get a crane in to pluck it out. Johnson himself found a 21-foot-tall tree from his farm for the White House Blue Room. His secret for the perfect tree was a perfect trimming at the perfect time of year, although he wouldn’t elaborate, seeing as how it was a trade secret and all. He was, though, happy to talk about the prices of his trees in 1971:
“I get $4 for a 5’ to 7’ tree; $6 for a 7’ to 9’ tree,” he adds. For a “super tree” such as he will present to the Nixons, the going rate would be about $100. That’s the same price as last year, of course.
In 2021 dollars, a 7’ to 9’ tree from Kermit’s farm is roughly $40 in 2021 dollars. But the Nixon tree, at $100, would cost $655 today.
So sure, our tree this year was more expensive. Skinnier. Shorter. But, as we all know, it’s not the size that counts, it’s what you do with it:
Happy holidays everyone, no matter how you celebrate.