The last time an artificial Christmas tree was on display at the Mississippi Capitol, a faulty electrical cord started a blaze and the building had to be evacuated.

The Capitol rules have changed because of the 1999 fire, said architectural historian Allison Davis. Now it's no electric lights and no fake trees.

That change has benefited Michael May, owner of Lazy Acres Christmas Tree Farm in Chunky. This year, one of his 20-foot Leyland Cypress trees is the centerpiece of the Capitol's holiday decor. Local growers now regularly provide Christmas trees for the Capitol, governor's mansion and Old Capitol Museum.

State governments aren't the only ones giving business to southern Christmas tree growers. In the past two years, the growers' sales have risen after more than 10 years of decline in the industry.

Clarke Gernon, owner of the Shady Pond Tree Farm in Pearl River, La., said last year was the best he has had in a decade. He attributes it largely to families shaken by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks looking for wholesome outings.

"Part of the gain we experienced last year was clearly linked to 9/11 and a resurgence of family-oriented activities," Gernon said. "The atmosphere is picturesque, quiet, not like being in the mall."

Despite the recent upswing in business, the number of Christmas tree growers in the Deep South continues to decline.

In the past, glutted markets pushed tree prices down, forcing many growers out of business.

Now, the entry of national retailers onto their turf and the growers' aging ranks could make them a dying breed.

In the 1980s, hundreds of people tried growing Christmas trees, betting a locally grown product would sell over those trucked in from northern states.

About 600 growers joined the Louisiana-Mississippi Christmas Tree Growers Association in the mid-1980s, Gernon said. It proved to be too much for the market.

"It was rooted in the fact that folks thought they could stick some trees in the ground and come back four years later and make a pile of money," said Gernon, now treasurer of the National Christmas Tree Association. "It just generated this tremendous glut of trees locally in the two states and other parts of the South."

In Mississippi, the number of Christmas tree growers dropped from 400 in 1987 to 120 in 1997, according to Steve Dicke, an extension professor and residential Christmas tree expert at Mississippi State University. Today, there are about 90 growers in the state, Dicke said.

The Louisiana-Mississippi association's membership has declined from 100 five years ago to 75 today, said Mimi Bennett, the group's executive secretary.

The decline in growers helped those still in the market gain customers, but other factors are working against southern tree growers.

For one, artificial trees are more popular than ever. Fake trees last year outnumbered real trees in American homes by more than 2 to 1, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.

Additionally, national retailers and grocery stores have jumped into the Christmas tree business. Many customers are lured by the cheap prices and the convenience of being able to pick up a tree when buying a gallon of milk.

May said his father recently went to a hardware store for equipment and received with his purchase a coupon for a free Christmas tree.

"When they're giving them away, you've got to do something different," May said.

To protect their market from further erosion, Christmas tree growers have retooled their strategy. The result is "agritainment" -- marketing farms as a family adventure.

Today, along with trees, many growers offer holiday shoppers sleigh rides, live entertainment and petting zoos.

"It's a continuing process of reinventing yourself," May said.

Dicke said there is now room for the market to grow.

But despite better market conditions, many predict the number of Deep South growers will continue to decline over the next five years.

The biggest problem is the age of the farm owners. Many growers in Mississippi and Louisiana are reaching the age where they can no longer meet the physical demands of maintaining their farms.

"A lot of it is the graying of the industry," May said.

Bennett said three-quarters of the Louisiana-Mississippi association's members are over 60.

Their children often are not interested in taking over operations, and farmers can find themselves having to give up their farms. But the resulting dip should be temporary, Gernon said.

"The production of Christmas trees is maybe something the younger people will shun, but when they get to a certain point in life, human tradition becomes important. When you get into your forties and early fifties, you realize the benefit of that. That's what happened to me," Gernon said.

A 20-foot Leyland Cypress Christmas tree stands in the rotunda of the Mississippi State Capitol in Jackson. Artificial trees were banned after one caught fire in 1999 and the building had to be evacuated.