R. W. Stagner, who sells more Christmas trees wholesale than anyone in the Washington metropolitan area, says he has never seen anything like the current rush for holiday trees.
Clad in a kelly green cap and a red-plaid, wool jacket to keep out the bitter cold, Stagner barely had time one day last week to show a visitor his half-filled tree lot in the Eckington Market at 4th Street and Florida Avenue NE.
Stagner had to keep running between the lot and his nearby trailer-office where an insistent telephone was bringing wholesale tree orders from as far as Baltimore and Hagerstown.
"I've been in the business for 15, years, and this is the worst I have ever seen it," Stagner said.
Stagner and tree growers and agriculture officials in Maryland and Virginia have predicted that real Christmas trees this season will cost at least $1.50 more than last year because of previous poor growing seasons in the industry and higher growing costs. That higher price, they say, will be found regardless of whether a tree is sold by the foot or at a flat rate.
Pre-cut trees also will be harder to find, especially in the District of Columbia, whose residents may be forced to drive into Maryland and Virginia to buy trees.
Amid the rising costs and predicted shortages of precut trees here, more families have begun leaning toward more traditional ways of celebrating the Yuletide by choosing and cutting their own trees. They invest a half-day or more on rural farms and, in the process of procuring a tree, can teach their youngsters a nature lesson as well.
Officials of the Christmas tree industry said last week that tree prices will be at least 10 per cent higher this year because of a greater demand for real trees, fewer growers to meet the demand and rising costs for labor, fertilizer and transportation.
Donald McNeil, executive director of the National Christmas Tree Growers Association in Milwaukee, Wis., said the association predicts that one to two million fewer trees will be available this season.
Wholesaler Stagner said he has received about 8,000 fewer trees than he ordered this year.
"If I could get them, I could sell them because people have been calling for trees from all over. Anyone (who sells trees) will tell you incoming orders were cut 25 to 50 per cent this year," Stagner said.
"I sold out last year, and I have half as many trees this year," said the Smithsburg, Md., resident who said he sells most of the trees to persons who run fruit or produce businesses.
In the District of Columbia, the tree shortage will be felt even more severely because fewer neighborhood lots are selling real trees.
The Christmas tree businessman, whose season runs from 6 to 8 weeks and who seeks profit for charity or personal gain, apparently is a vanishing breed in the city.
Joleatha Barnes of the city's business licenses and permits office, which approves occupancy permits to sell trees in lots or parking areas, said only two people have requested permits this year. Last year at this time, the city hads about 50 permit requests, she said.
"I don't understand it. It's not likely new that we will get many more requests for permits because time is running out - it takes about four days to get the permits because plot drawings have to be made. It (the lack of neighborhood lots) could be a hardship on people in the District who want real trees but don't have transportation to get them," Barnes said.
Ernest Moore, a spokesman for Safeway Stores Inc., the city's largest grocery chain, said Safeway has not received requests from clubs or organizations to sell trees in its city stores' parking lots. Giant Food Inc., the city's second largest grocery chain, also has received no such requests, SPokesman Barry Scher said.
While neither spokesman could remember how many tree lots were located in city stores in the past, they said organizations have requested outside space to sell trees, at the chain's suburban stores this year.
A random check shows that area businesses such as florists, flowers centers and hardware and department stores - which have established ties with tree suppliers - plan to sell trees this year.
Not all the stores, especially those with branches in the city, will sell real trees. Some, including all department stores, are carrying artificial trees.
A spokesman for the Hecht Co. said only its stores with garden centers, in Marlow Heights and Parkington, will offer real trees. A spokesman said that Sears Roebuck and Co. is selling real trees in Clarendon and that problems with a shipper have delayed a decision on whether to sell them in the District.
Ray Johnson, of Johnson's Flower Center at 4020 Wisconsin Ave. NW, said, "We did find some minor problems in getting trees, but we will have plenty this year because we deal with regular (plant and tree) suppliers - we've been in this business for 40 years."
"I passed several tree lots in Maryland (Friday) that were set up to sell trees, but they did not have any, and it seems to be awful late for them to be getting trees in. They should have had them by now," Johnson said.
Spokesmen for Virginia and Maryland state agriculture departments said tree wholesalers in their states sold much of their crop early this year because of the increase demand.
However, in Maryland, for example, fewer growers are choosing to sell trees wholesale, opting instead to sell directly to customers to avoid the cost of middlemen.
Growers who all customers to "choose and cut" their own trees said they have no shortage of trees.
"It used to be that there never was a choose-and-cut market in Maryland. Seven years ago when I first started working here, growers were wholesaling the best they knew how and there was no alternative," said George Roche, marketing specialist for the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
Joanne Tannehill, spokesperson for the Virginia Christmas Tree Growers Association, said the number of farms offering choose and cut trees has risen from 15 last year to 21.
"I think the trend toward choose and cut sales is growing in Virginia," said Tannehill, who has been growing trees in Deerfield, Va. since 1962. "So many people who live in apartments and houses in Washington make coming out (to the farms) a country outing.
"It seems to me that people are looking more for the experience (of choosing their own trees) and a return to the old fashioned Christmas," she said.
Karen and Don Armstrong have bundled their three children, and packed a saw, twince, cookies, fruit cake and hot chocolate for the ride to John Theofield's choose-and-cut tree farm north of Frederick for the past five years.
"The kids don't mind the cold, or the (one hour) drive (from their suburban Maryland home they start asking to go to the farm in November," Mrs. Armstrong said.
"The trip usually becomes a nature lessons for the kids, and my husband, who believes in treating nature fairly, explains the cycle of nature to the children," she said.
"The kids just love it. I think they think it's the one thing left from the oldtime Christmas," Mrs. Armstrong said. "The nip in the air just adds something to it - I can really tell a difference."
Tips on buying, caring for trees Page C6.