Virginia Christmas tree growers say they face a pair of Grinches this holiday season: A glut of trees and a new federal tax code that yanks much of the incentive out of a once-profitable business.
"We're going to ride it out," said Elizabeth Samuels, who with her husband Robert has been in the business for 20 years in Buckingham County. "For people who are just starting out in it, it's discouraging to come into a glut and find they've changed the rules."
Growers say they expect their biggest markets, the Tidewater and Washington, D.C., areas, to be flooded because of too much planting early in the decade.
"Six or eight years ago, these people just planted acres and acres of trees and these trees are just now coming into production," said W.T. Francisco, a Staunton grower and president of the Virginia Christmas Tree Growers Association.
Francisco and other full-time growers interviewed recently said that many of the trees were planted by people looking for a good investment. At the time, only 40 percent of the price of trees that were in the ground for six years was taxed.
Under the tax revisions this year, the entire price of the tree, minus expenses, is taxed.
"The new tax law will probably discourage people who went into the Christmas tree industry as a sideline," said Wayne McBee, superintendent of the Virginia Department of Forestry's Augusta Forestry Center in Crimora. "It might hurt some high-income people -- doctors, lawyers -- who got into it as a sideline. I think a lot of people will get out of it."
Full-time growers said getting the part-timers out will be good for the industry, because it will make prices more stable and upgrade the quality of trees.
"I think it's discouraging some people from investing in it, so this may be a good thing in the long run," Mrs. Samuels said.
Francisco said many of the people who got into the business as a sideline thought they merely had to plant trees and harvest them several years later, which led to a number of inferior trees being produced. Weeding those growers out of the industry will improve the overall quality of the state's trees, he said.
Still, trees planted when the market was booming will be a factor for the next several years.
Francisco said Virginia, which harvests about 250,000 trees a year, is not one of the nation's largest producers, but his association has doubled its membership to about 450 over the last few years as the Virginia industry has grown.
Virginia is doing a bit of Christmas tree peddling out of state, too. Francisco said that white pines grown in Virginia do not dry out as quickly as some other types of Christmas trees, and growers have begun shipping to the Florida.