It is taking a little more searching and billfold greenery for West Virginians to find and take home the perfect fresh-cut Christmas evergreen tree from roadside lots, farmers’ markets and retail outlets across the state this season.
The retail price of real Christmas trees is expected to increase by about 5 percent nationally this year due to a tight supply of trees and an increase in demand, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.
Higher price spikes can be expected for popular tree species, like Fraser firs or Douglas firs, affected by drought or disease in states where they are mass produced for wholesale, like North Carolina and Oregon.
The recession of 2008 also is being blamed for a portion of the tight supply situation, according to the growers’ group. At that time, belt-tightening consumers reduced spending on non-essentials, like fresh-cut Christmas trees, resulting in a glut of trees hitting the market often priced at below-production cost.
To compensate for the oversupply situation, growers planted fewer trees in subsequent years or got out of the business entirely. Since it takes 12 or more years to grow some popular species to an optimum height of about 12 feet, a few years remain before all trees planted in the wake of the 2008 recession are market ready.
Last year, U.S. consumers bought 32.8 million real Christmas trees, up 19 percent from the previous year, according to NCTA statistics. Prices increased a bit less than 5 percent during that period, with a similar increase expected this year.
But the numbers add up. Last year, the national average retail price for a fresh-cut Christmas tree was $78, according to the NCTA. This season, the average price is expected to be a record $81.
While Christmas tree growers work to keep up with new demand, sparked in part by a generation of millennials who have proven to be real-tree loyalists, a new generation of tree growers has failed to emerge.
“When I first started planting Christmas trees, in 1974, there were close to 300 growers in the state,” said Ed Grafton, treasurer of the West Virginia Christmas Tree Growers Association, who operates a choose-and-cut tree farm near Heaters, in Braxton County. “Now, there are only 65 to 75 left, with about 20 counties lacking any growers,” he said.
Grafton, a retired forestry professor at Glenville State College, once wholesaled 10,000 to 12,000 trees annually, mainly to nonprofit groups selling trees to raise operating funds. But he has since scaled back to his choose-and-cut Christmas tree operation, Berry Creek Enterprises.
“As far as I know, there is only one wholesale grower left in the state,” he said.
“The guys who started growing trees back in the ’70s and ’80s are getting to the point where they can’t do all the work they used to be able to do, and have to hire more labor to keep going, which adds to expenses,” Grafton said. “If we don’t get some young growers operating soon, we won’t be able to keep up with demand.”
Grafton led workshops on establishing a Christmas tree business several years ago, but he hsaid they generated only scattered interest among prospective growers.
“For good reason, it’s tough to get the younger set interested in starting up a Christmas tree operation,” he said. “It takes eight to 10 years of dealing with deer and disease, keeping the weeds and brush mowed down and shaping the trees before you start getting any return on your investment.”
But Grafton said he has a solid base of customers he enjoys seeing come to his farm year after year to search for their ideal tree, cut it down with a bow saw and drive it home.
“As long as my health allows, I’ll keep with it,” he said. “I have enough trees in the ground to last another 10 years or so.”