Thin tidings: Christmas tree supply tightening as demand increases

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GRAND FORKS, N.D.—Customers who wait until the last minute to get a Christmas tree may not have much to choose from as suppliers deal with a tightening market, industry leaders said this week.

Parts of the country may see a lower supply than normal, according to the National Christmas Tree Association. As a result, customers are shopping early, said association spokesman Doug Hundley.

"We think anybody looking for a real tree will find ... a good one they will be happy with," he said. "It just may be that you might want to shop a little earlier this year to make sure you keep a good selection."

Local vendors have started selling trees. In Grand Forks, All Seasons Garden Center started Nov. 20, and this weekend was busy, said Scott Kiel, the center's landscape designer. The center has received a lot of calls and requests for orders, he said.

"Last weekend was our open house," he said. "That's our biggest seller."

Tim Shea's in Grand Forks started selling trees after Thanksgiving, and co-manager Chip Shea expects the pace will pick up in the coming days. He said he hasn't seen any signs that the tight supply is affecting North Dakota.

"We don't see it here yet," he said, adding his supplier told him they should be OK over the next few years. "After that, we're not sure what is going to happen."

The industry that sold an average of 25 million to 30 million each year over past decade is describing the situation not as a shortage but a tightening market, Hundley said. The shortage isn't widespread, Hundley said. Main tree-producing states like Oregon, Michigan and North Carolina likely won't notice a tight market.

"If you get into the southwest or Florida where you are dependant on importing trees into your state, then you may have a tighter supply," he said.

Hundley pointed to a recession in 2008 as a reason for this season's tight market. Shoppers bought fewer trees, which led to a large supply amid low demand.

As a result, tree growers began to sell their farms to other companies and the industry planted fewer trees, Hundley said.

Whatever the tree industry plants is typically harvested 10 years later. So this year is a reflection of tree growers' reaction to the glut of trees a decade ago, Hundley added.

"When the planting of small trees slows down, then seven to 10 years later, we have a slowdown in harvestable trees available," he said.

Demand also is high because people have more disposable income because the economy is better than it was in 2008, Hundley noted. That compounds the tight market.

There are fewer farmers growing trees than in the past, said Tom Happersett, owner of Happ's Christmas Trees in Neshkoro, Wis. The tree grower with more than 30 years of experience said the younger generation is not replacing retiring growers.

"The kids aren't really getting into it," he said.

Even Kiel noticed his center has a hard time finding help, adding that getting trees ready for the year can be hard work.

"It's so hard to find labor work," he said. "We could use four more people."

Hundley said his association foresees the tree market improving in the coming years.

"We don't see this being a long-term problem because the growers have been planting back rapidly as fast as they can for the last several years," he said.

But Happersett disagrees.

"The shortage is going to get bigger as the years go by," Happersett said. "Trees are going to get more popular."

Shea's doesn't sell as many Christmas trees as it used to in the past, Shea said. In the late 1980s, the business sold between 2,500 and 3,000 trees, he noted. Now the center averages about 350 to 400 each year.

He attributed that to competition from big box stores.

Both All Seasons and Shea's tries to attract customers by turning the tradition of picking out a tree into a family experience, Kiel and Shea said. They play music, host activities and have treats for shoppers.

Kiel said he's noticed more customers coming in with children.

Despite the tight market and competition, Kiel, Shea, Hundley and Happersett said people still gravitate toward a real tree. Customers like the fresh smell and look of a real tree, Kiel added.

"I don't see artificial trees taking over," Kiel said. "I just see there are less people in the industry growing trees."