It’s beginning to look nothing like Christmas at Charleston’s Capitol Market.
Fifteen trees remained Friday afternoon, split between May Tree Farm, in Petersburg, and venerable mainstay French Creek Christmas Trees, located outside Buckhannon.
No trees remained Monday.
One of May Tree Farm’s smallish trees carried a $150 price tag, but it had just been marked down half price, to $75.
The tree likely wouldn’t have fetched $75 in past years, much less the original $150. But this has not been an ordinary year for Christmas trees, at Capitol Market or elsewhere. It’s not normal to have floods of out-of-state visitors snatching up firs before Thanksgiving.
“We had people calling us Nov. 1,” Capitol Market executive director Evan Osborn said Friday, “when the pop-up tree growers couldn’t get trees.”
Osborn calls pop-up tree growers those who buy their product from various tree farms. They supply businesses, such as Lowe’s and Piggly Wiggly, with storefront choices. They’re in scant supply this year. Then again, all trees are scarce.
The problem is several fold, according to Osborn and French Creek’s John Armstrong. About 10 years ago, the country experienced a glut of trees, prompting big growers in the Southeast to cut back production. They might have overcorrected in their adjustment. In addition, he said, tree farmers tend to be of the older set.
“Everybody’s getting older,” Armstrong said. “I’m one of the younger ones left, and I’m 67. If I put a seedling in the ground and want a 9-foot-tree, I’ll be 80 years old by the time it’s ready to cut. And a lot of these farmers, their kids don’t want to do it. Farming’s hard work, no matter what kind of farming you’re talking about.”
Over at May Tree Farm, Rick Largent was looking forward to packing up in a couple of days. He has been in Charleston for the past month.
He said no one wants to grow trees anymore. “There’s a lot involved in it. You’ve got to spray them, fertilize them, shear them. It’s hard to get help.”
Because Capitol Market is an annual Christmas rite for many Kanawha Valley types — Osborn’s family included — the director has learned a lot about tree dearth. Tree growers have a finite amount of land and time, he says. And they can cut only so many trees a season, if they want them in succeeding years.
“To further complicate problems, we’re on the last two years of a systemic tree blight that has affected large portions of the Southeast,” Osborn said. “And from those who could get orders placed, their trucks got canceled. You had long-haul drivers getting offered premiums from large retailers. People want their iPads.”
Osborn said he came across a newspaper clipping from the 1980s, when the market lurked underneath the interstate. Trees were to arrive that year on Dec. 12. This year, Dec. 12 was Sunday.
“Now, we’re at a point when we’re wrapping up the season before it ever started,” Osborn said.
Armstrong said he has made four return trips to Upshur County, but had to set a cut limit or he would have no trees next year. He also has bought from others, but at inflated prices. A tree that would have cost him $43 last year is now $55. He wants to do more than break even and must think of the $2,000 overhead rent he owes to Capitol Market, so now the tree is $70.
“These guys have been breaking their backs, trying to do everything they can to keep trees in here,” Osborn said, referring to Armstrong and Largent.
Largent said his “choose-and-cut” farm sold 150 to 200 trees. Choose-and-cut farms offer the buyer a chance to choose their own tree, cut it and lug it home, at a price much less expensive than in a shop. “Selling 150 to 200 trees by choose-and-cut doesn’t happen anywhere,” he said.
Osborn said the tree shortage is virtually nationwide. Buyers from as far away as New York and Massachusetts have ventured south, he said, offering near-retail prices for wholesale product. Imagine the final retail price, once the trees land back north. The principal West Virginia market is the state itself, in addition to North Carolina, Virginia and Northeast Georgia.
Osborn says not to despair, though. The Capitol Market tree season might not be over.
“I’ll say this — I don’t want to leave anyone disappointed,” he said. “For my family, it’s always been a tradition to go to Capitol Market and get your tree. To that end, we’re already recruiting, racking our brains, to find new growers. We want to remain a viable option for decades to come.”