Christ­mas trees again in short sup­ply as in­dus­try strug­gles

Orlando Sentinel - - WALL STREET REPORT - By John Raby

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Cus­tomers search­ing for the per­fect Christ­mas tree typ­i­cally glance at Sandy Par­sons’ limited of­fer­ings, then keep walk­ing.

Par­sons never got her order for 350 trees from a North Carolina farm. Sup­plies were short, she was told. In­stead, she was shipped some smaller ones for her lot at the Capi­tol Mar­ket in Charleston. Those paled in com­par­i­son to the much taller beau­ties at a com­peti­tor’s lot next door.

“This has been the worst sea­son,” Par­sons said. “We lost a lot of money by that. It sets you back two or three years.”

Christ­mas tree sup­plies are tight again this year across the United States, de­pend­ing upon lo­ca­tion and seller. The in­dus­try is still bounc­ing back from the Great Re­ces­sion and try­ing to win peo­ple back from a shift to­ward ar­ti­fi­cial trees when times were es­pe­cially tough.

In­dus­try of­fi­cials say not to worry: Ev­ery­one who wants a last-minute tree should be able to find one. It just might take a lit­tle more search­ing, es­pe­cially if cus­tomers want a spe­cific type, and you might have to pay a lit­tle more.

The best ad­vice, said Amy Start, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Michi­gan Christ­mas Tree As­so­ci­a­tion, is sim­ple: “Shop early.”

Par­sons has been in busi­ness for 42 years as a sea­sonal seller of flow­ers, pro­duce, pumpkins — and this year, just 32 Christ­mas trees.

“I can tell you how many I didn’t buy: 350,” said Par­sons, whose dis­ap­point­ment has been tem­pered by ro­bust wreath sales.

In the next lot, Robert Cole was hav­ing a jolly ol’ time pre­par­ing an abun­dance of trees for load­ing onto cus­tomers’ ve­hi­cles.

The dif­fer­ence? Cole’s lot, French Creek Farms of Buck­han­non, grows its own trees.

“We’ve been busier than we’ve ever been be­fore,” Cole said.

Ges­tur­ing to­ward the lots of Par­sons and an­other com­peti­tor, he ex­plained his brisk busi­ness in the sim­plest eco­nomic terms: “Be­cause there’s been no trees here and no trees over there.”

An over­sup­ply of trees about a decade ago caused a domino ef­fect na­tion­wide. Sub­se­quently, fewer trees were cut down, which meant not as many seedlings were planted to re­place them. Hot, dry weather also took its toll, forc­ing many grow­ers to close.

Larry Smith, who has been sell­ing Fraser firs from the same lot in Lenoir, North Carolina, for 40 years, and sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Christ­mas tree farmer Mike Rood of Her­mann, Mis­souri, said some farm­ers’ adult chil­dren aren’t as ea­ger to take over the fam­ily busi­ness, lead­ing to a la­bor short­age.

De­spite such chal­lenges, Smith isn’t look­ing for other ways to make a liv­ing.

“I hope they find me fell over dead in the tree patch,” he said. “That’s the way I re­ally want to go.”

Smith’s trees have graced homes across the North Carolina foothills and up to the White House. He said he’s hav­ing his best year ever and doesn’t fore­see run­ning out. When his sup­ply dwin­dles, his team heads up the moun­tain to har­vest more.

In Mis­souri, Rood buys pre­cut trees not na­tive to the state to sup­ple­ment the short sup­ply. This year, his farm couldn’t buy as many taller trees as it wanted.

“The big­ger trees in par­tic­u­lar at this stage in the game are go­ing to be harder to find,” Rood said. “So they need to be aware that if they’re re­ally look­ing for a big tree, they need to go out and find it pretty quickly.”

The sup­ply is­sue goes all the way up the chain.

Ore­gon has the high­est an­nual pro­duc­tion of Christ­mas trees, fol­lowed by North Carolina and Michi­gan. In Ore­gon, where some tree farms com­prise thou­sands of acres, Kirchem Farm owner Cher Tollefson in Ore­gon City closed her 100-acre busi­ness this hol­i­day sea­son for the first time in nearly three decades, cit­ing a lack of trees.

The num­ber of Christ­mas tree farms na­tion­wide fell 3% be­tween 2012 and 2017, the lat­est year avail­able, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture.

JOHN RABY/AP

Sandy Par­sons, who owns a Christ­mas tree lot in Charleston, W.Va., has sold only 32 trees this year due to a short­age.

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