Christmas tree growers pine for fair weekends


Issue Date: November 30, 2011
By Ching Lee
In preparation for opening his choose-and-cut Christmas tree farm in Applegate, Bob Sutherland puts up a sign directing patrons to their destination. Like most choose-and-cut operations, Sutherland’s Red Feather Farms opened the day after Thanksgiving but will be busiest during these next two weekends.
Photo/Ching Lee
Bob Sutherland stands next to a Douglas fir on his Placer County Christmas tree farm, which has been in operation for 40 years and typically grows about 5,000 trees annually.
Photo/Ching Lee

Barring any major downpours that typically keep holiday shoppers at bay, California Christmas tree farmers say they look forward to a good season as they gear up for their busiest time of year this weekend.

Most choose-and-cut operations officially opened the day after Thanksgiving, but the first two weekends in December usually drive the most sales, farmers said.

"Weather is one of the big determining factors," said Bob Sutherland, a Placer County Christmas tree farmer who runs Red Feather Farms in Applegate. "If it's real nice, we really do have a good time and a lot of people come to us. Last year, it rained on me and I lost a whole weekend. People just didn't want to go out and drown to get a tree."

Jim Armstrong, who operates Snowy Peaks Christmas Tree Farm at the 4,000-foot elevation in Foresthill, said heavy snow last year prevented him from opening his farm. Now, with two years' worth of growth on his trees, Armstrong said the outlook for this year "should be good," although "it won't be a record-breaker."

Plentiful rain throughout the year, especially during the spring, did produce a great crop of trees though, said Sam Minturn, executive director of the California Christmas Tree Association. The wet year has greatly helped higher-elevation farms, which depend on rain and snow for their moisture, he said.

"Weather-wise, I think we probably had the best possible year ever," Minturn said.

There will also be ample supply of precut trees from Oregon and Washington to help meet demand, with as much as 80 percent to 90 percent of Christmas trees sold in California coming from out of state, he said.

Minturn said he expects tree pricing will probably be about the same as in past years, even though growers have seen rising costs for fuel and other inputs. He also noted that the still-ailing economy doesn't appear to have dampened sales of farm-grown Christmas trees too much.

"It seems like Christmas is special in most people's hearts and they don't skip on it," Minturn said. "They may cut back on the cost of their presents or something, but they don't seem to cut back on the tradition."

A bigger concern for Christmas tree growers remains the threat of artificial trees, a $530 million industry in the United States last year, with 8.2 million trees sold, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.

To help market and boost sales of real Christmas trees, U.S. growers since 2009 have been seeking to implement a self-funded promotion and research program, which would be administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Also known as a "checkoff," the program would assess growers 15 cents for every tree they sell, with an exemption for those who produce fewer than 500 trees a year.

The program was to take effect this year but, after the grower assessment was mistakenly labeled as a "tax on Christmas trees" by numerous media outlets and unfavorable public reaction followed, USDA announced on Nov. 17 it was delaying the program "to provide all interested persons, including the Christmas tree industry and the general public, an opportunity to become more familiar with the program."

"Somehow it became political, which I don't quite understand," Minturn said, noting that USDA's timing in publishing the final rule on the program in November "was not the best."

Fresh-cut Christmas trees still outsell artificial ones by an almost three-to-one margin—with 27 million farm-raised trees sold in 2010 at a value of $976 million, according to NCTA. But Armstrong said consumers "have been sort of brainwashed to think that cutting any tree anywhere is a bad and evil thing."

"We have to do something to stem the fake tree," he said. "The fake tree has cut into the market considerably, and we have to take that on, and the only way you can do that is with some kind of steady fund."

Minturn said the grower assessment would not be a federal "tax" on Christmas trees and characterized the program as no different from other grower-funded promotional efforts such as the "Got milk?" and "Beef, it's what's for dinner" campaigns.

Armstrong said he's noticed that in the last five to six years, he's been losing sales of 15 percent or more on his choose-and-cut farm, which also grows for the wholesale and commercial markets. And he said he thinks artificial trees—85 percent of which are imported from China, according to NCTA—have been taking that market.

Nancy Roatcap, who grows for her choose-and-cut farm in Los Angeles County and also resells trees from Oregon, said fresh-cut trees have been losing market share for a number of years "as the fake trees have gotten more sophisticated."

"They do look very real," she acknowledged. "Plus, they come pre-lit. It's easier for people to set up."

She noted that with the down economy, her customers are now buying smaller trees, even though she's still selling about the same number of trees every year.

Roatcap said she favors the fee assessment to promote real Christmas trees because "it would benefit all the growers, even the ones that are against it, even the ones that don't have to pay." She also said she "can't imagine" passing that 15-cent assessment on to her customers.

Sutherland said he would be passing on the extra fee to his customers and doesn't think it's right that he would have to contribute to the fund. He said he doesn't need any help promoting his product, as he's been getting the same volume of people coming to his farm for the last 10 years and his sales have remained relatively unchanged during that same period.

"Maybe other people (need the help), but I don't see where it was going to benefit me at all," he said. "We don't need the government involved."

Minturn said the checkoff program was "overwhelmingly approved" by the nation's growers and by the "vast majority" of CCTA members. He added that money collected for the program would also be used for research to develop better trees and other genetic improvements.

He noted that more than half of CCTA members have farms with 5 acres or smaller and many of them would likely be exempt from paying the program assessment. He also said he expects the program will be approved next year, "hopefully, early in the year so it's not a big shock to everybody."

To find where to buy a real Christmas tree this year, go to www.cachristmas.com.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.