Like Santa’s elves, Christmas tree retailers begin planning months in advance of the holiday season. And as local Christmas tree lot owners reached out to growers last summer to lock in supplies, many learned of a possible holiday headache — a shortage of trees, particularly from leading producers in North Carolina and Oregon.
The shortage could have meant raising prices, turning away longtime customers and losing ground to a Christmas rival: the artificial tree.
The story mostly has a cheery ending befitting the season. Most local dealers say prices remain consistent with last year and there seem to be enough trees for shoppers to avoid a “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” sort of holiday nightmare.
But securing adequate supplies did not come without a scramble — and without anxiety among customers.
“We came out early because we heard there is a tree shortage,” said Karen Thanner, a Baltimore resident who purchased a Fraser Fir for about $80 last Saturday from Walther Gardens.
She was not alone.
“It’s the busiest opening we’ve ever had, and this is our 42nd year,” said Mark J. Des Marais, a volunteer at St Pius X Church on York Road, which received 1,500 trees from tractor-trailers on Thanksgiving weekend. The sale on the church’s front lawn has attracted a steady stream of buyers.
Volunteers at the site attributed the demand to sunny, spring-like weather — and perhaps concern about tree supplies.Trees were selling for $30 to about $90.
Doug Hundley, spokesman for the National Christmas Tree Association, said a shortage of Christmas trees nationwide can be traced to the recession of 2006-08. During that time, he said, growers did not harvest all of their trees because they couldn’t sell them. That meant they couldn’t re-plant in those spaces, diminishing future supplies.
It takes about 10 years to grow a 7- to 8-foot Christmas tree, Hundley said.
“We cannot grow real Christmas trees quickly,” he said. “Unfortunately, [the shortage] is happening at a time when the economy is good and demand is high.”
Hundley said average prices may rise 5 to 10 percent nationally this year, and any lot that waited until the last month to try to stock up “would be in trouble.”
Matthew Wittek, co-owner of Walther Gardens in Baltimore, said he encountered difficulties getting the usual supplies from North Carolina.
“I shifted from North Carolina — knowing the prices have gone up — and went to another vendor in New Hampshire,” said Wittek, who runs Walther with his sister Paula. “I probably saved a little money and got a better quality product. The color is gorgeous and the fragrance is fresh.”
At family-owned Greenway farm in Howard County, manager Mike Healey said they have had to raise prices slightly on Fraser firs.
“I bring in some Fraser firs because people really like them,” Healey said. “The ones I got cost me more than they normally do — my supplier said it’s going to be this way for the next couple years.”
Last year, the Fraser Firs shipped to the farm sold to customers for about $55 or $60. “This year we’re starting at $64. We don’t want to have huge price increases,” Healey said.
Greenway grows other varieties on its property, and Healey said shortages out-of-state may help farms like his with their own trees. “Maybe we’ll get a little more business,” Healey said. Black Friday “was our opening day and we were busier than we normally are.”
Like Healey, Des Marais said he had some anxious moments making sure not to disappoint his customers, many of whom make a tradition of buying from St Pius X. Proceeds benefit the church’s youth program.
“Our regular supplier in North Carolina ran out of Fraser firs so we had to go elsewhere in North Carolina,” Des Marais said.
But he said the alternative supplier had enough reasonably-priced trees that he was able to hold the church lot’s prices steady.
At Cockeysville’s Valley View Farms, “the buzz word is there is a shortage,” said general manager Tim McQuaid. But despite customers’ concerns, “we were able to get in what we wanted to,” he said.
“Our prices are maintained the same as we’ve always priced,” McQuaid said, citing a range from $59.99 “up into the hundreds.”
Tree lots are perennially in competition with artificial trees, so many dealers resist raising prices for fear of losing the market battle. Artificial tree sellers don’t have to worry about shortages.
“As artificial trees become more competitively priced, we want to offer a value to customers who have traditions of buying a live Christmas tree,” said Sarah Lively, a spokeswoman for Lowe’s, the national chain that says it sells about 1.4 million trees a year. She said while prices vary by region, trees generally range from $29.98 to $130.
“None of our Christmas tree prices increased,” Lively said.
A recent news release from the Christmas Tree Association made a “buy American” argument against artificial trees. The release said buying an artificial tree manufactured in another country — it mentioned China — “is never the solution.”
“Just remember that you can be proud to buy a real tree because you will be supporting small farmers and our American economy,” it said.
Area nursery and farm owners say Christmas tree sales are indeed important financially and symbolically. The sales can provide revenue at an otherwise slow time and create a bond with customers.
“It’s definitely something we’re thankful to have this time of year, because the plant sales aren’t significant,” said Peter Bieneman, general manager of Green Fields Nursery in Baltimore. “We have customers for as long as I’ve been here — 30 plus years — that come in and get the same tree.”
Bieneman said prices haven’t increased this year, though the nursery did discontinue its purchases of Noble firs from Oregon because of the shortage. The tall, narrow tree is popular at Christmas, in part because its stiff branches are suitable for holding ornaments.
He said the nursery boosted its numbers of Fraser and Douglas firs instead, and also carries other trees such as blue spruce and white pine.
“We’re not too upset,” he said of dropping trees from Oregon. “We like having a little more local.”