Christmas tree supplies remain tight

Workers load bale Christmas trees into a container bound for Singapore. Few trees will mean higher prices this year.

A lingering shortage from Oregon growers means Americans will once again pay more for Christmas trees this holiday season.

Chal Landgren, a Christmas tree specialist at Oregon State University, said tight supplies are the result of overproduction during the late 2000s that deflated prices and forced roughly one-third of farms to drop out of the business.

Oregon is still the top producer of Christmas trees in the U.S., though Landgren said there are about 400 fewer growers now compared to just three years ago, turning what was a glut of cheap trees into a deficit.

“It’s this sort of boom and bust (cycle) of agriculture,” Landgren said. “When people weren’t making any money, they just got out of the business.”

While the USDA did not conduct a survey for Christmas trees in 2018, Landgren said Oregon growers will likely ship around 5.2 million trees to retailers nationwide — or about the same as 2017. Past years’ harvests had been as high as 7 million to 9 million trees, he said.

It could take another six to 10 years for supply and demand to balance, Landgren added, based on the time it takes to grow popular species such as Douglas fir and Noble fir from seedling to holiday height.

“It takes a long time to go through the cycle of a Christmas tree,” he said.

According to the National Christmas Tree Association, consumers reported spending an average of $75 per tree in 2017. Gary Snyder, president of the Kirk Co., a large tree grower with offices in Oregon City, Ore., said prices have risen 10-15 percent each year for the last three or four years.

Snyder said prices will be up a little bit again this year, but there should still be plenty of trees available.

“I don’t think there should be any issue with people finding a real tree,” Snyder said.

Bob Schaefer, general manager of Noble Mountain Tree Farm in Salem, Ore., said quality this year is “exceptional,” despite a record-setting drought and heat over the summer. Dry conditions actual helped production during harvest, Schaefer said, while timely rains in October provided some much-needed relief.

“The only thing that really impacted us was the hot, dry summer, but that didn’t impact our crop trees. It impacted our seedlings,” Schaefer said.

The weather-related impacts to seedlings is a concern for Landgren at OSU, since most of the region’s Christmas trees are grown without irrigation. Anecdotally, some farms reported up to 70 percent seedling mortality this summer, Landgren said, which is much higher than the average of 10-15 percent.

Landgren said the university is experimenting with ways to reduce seedling mortality, such as shading and chemical sprays to reduce water transpiration. If young trees continue to die at a rapid rate, he said it could result in another shortage five years down the road.

“Trying to get these trees to survive has been a bit of a challenge,” Landgren said.

McKenzie “Ken” Cook, of McKenzie Farms based in Estacada, Ore., said the industry has dealt with a long, hard struggle to rebound from this latest shortage. He said the number of trees grown in Oregon has fallen from 90 million to fewer than 40 million.

His company, which grows around 8 million trees in the Willamette Valley, faced nearly closing, with Cook having to go out of pocket to stay afloat, he said. Fortunately, he said the business was able to survive and is working to stabilize supply and demand.

Once that happens, Cook said he believes farmers are growing smarter now in order to avoid a similar situation in the future.

“I don’t see them jumping back in this category as a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,” Cook said. “After four miserable cycles over a 40-year period, I don’t think this will be repeated again.”

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