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Oh, Christmas tree, not you, too: Supply chain problems come to the fir trade

As families head into Black Friday, Christmas trees will be pricier and in shorter supply

Joao Maroja, 23, carries four small trees to a truck to be loaded at North Pole Xmas Trees in Nashua, New Hampshire on Nov. 21, 2021. (Joseph Prezioso/AFP/Getty Images)
8 min

Not even Christmas trees could escape the economic pandemonium of 2021.

Rerouted Fraser firs, fried Oregon pines, artificial trees caught in broken supply chains, and sky-high transportation costs have contorted the seasonal arbor trade like an oversized tree scrunched under a low ceiling. The situation has importers, growers, sellers and buyers even more frazzled amid Black Friday, when Christmas tree shopping begins in earnest.

Now many families are unsure whether they will spend the holiday gathered around a majestic tower of greenery or something more reminiscent of Charlie Brown’s sad spectacle.

“Christmas is not canceled, everyone will be able to find a Christmas tree,” said Jami Warner, executive director of the American Christmas Tree Association, a trade group representing the artificial tree industry.

Exactly what kind of tree will await people, though, is less clear. The supply chain Grinch may still gum up the works.

A plywood sign at Hayfield Secondary School in Alexandria, Va., reads, “Due to a shortage of good Fraser fir trees, the boosters will not be having the annual tree sale this year.” And for National Tree Co., a leading importer of artificial trees, manufacturing time has roughly doubled since before the pandemic, and delivery from Southern China through the Panama Canal and to New York has increased from three weeks to eight.

The American Christmas Tree Association has said this year’s supply of real Christmas trees will be squeezed by the summer’s heat dome in the Pacific Northwest, while supplies of artificial trees, largely coming from China, will be affected by the same shipping and labor problems plaguing many industries.

Warner predicts price hikes of 10 to 30 percent over last year, “a lot of that on the artificial side.” She urges consumers to shop early because otherwise, “your tree may not be the tree you were looking for.”

Doug Hundley, seasonal spokesman for the National Christmas Tree Association, a separate trade group that represents live tree growers, is more sanguine about this season’s supply. He said prices for live trees will be more like 5 to 10 percent higher than last year, following the trend of the past several years.

The Pacific Northwest is the largest producer of live trees, with about 5 million trees cut annually, Hundley said, accounting for nearly 25 percent of the national supply. He said the region’s stock is down 10 percent due to this summer’s heat and drought, so the reduction of available trees could be half a million. That’s a tiny fraction of the total number of Christmas trees growing on tree farms spread across the United States, he said.

Baby trees suffered the most damage due to summer drought and high heat.

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“When the temperature was 117 degrees on our farm, it did a lot of damage to the seedlings. They don’t have the root mass to support that moisture loss,” said Bob Schaefer, who grows half a million trees a year at Noble Mountain Tree Farm in Salem, Ore. He said he’ll have to do a lot of replanting to replace the seedlings that died, but that the long-term impact for consumers is negligible.

Schaefer said there is variation in the hardiness of tree species, and that his mature Noble firs experienced the most burn damage from the heat, but his Douglas and Nordmann firs were not impacted and “came through the heat in fine spirits.”

It takes 10 years to grow a Noble fir to maturity. Schaefer and other Oregon growers will likely allow those burned trees another year or two in the ground in the hopes of regrowing new needles, which Schaefer predicts will mean a surge in the number of larger Noble firs in years to come.

For this year, he said, if you had your heart set on a Pacific Northwest Noble fir, you may have to pick something else. (Noble firs are often what people purchase when seeking a very large tree. Fraser firs are the most classic Christmas trees, prized because they have stiff branches that can easily hold an ornament, while Douglas firs are a perfect pyramid shape and very full.)

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The need for fir flexibility applies to folks in the Mid-Atlantic region as well, according to Cubby Steinhart, who grows 1.5 million trees a year at McKenzie Farms in Oregon and Happy Holiday Christmas Trees in North Carolina.

Those missing Fraser firs for the Virginia school booster club? Steinhart said growers in the North Carolina and Virginia areas have seen a surplus of Fraser firs for several years, so growers such as himself decided to sell them instead into the Northeast and Texas areas, alerting their Mid-Atlantic customers about the pivot at the last minute. For many of the baseball leagues and girls and boys clubs that put on annual Christmas tree tent fundraisers, scrambling to find a new vendor became too big a hassle and they canceled.

Steinhart, who sells his trees into stores such as Home Depot, Lowe’s and Costco, said last year’s holiday season was “nuts,” that “people were tired of being at home, so live tree nurseries were unbelievable, and pumpkin patches were through the roof.” And he said with 15 million families that did not travel to family gatherings last year, there were more households that elected to have their own Christmas trees.

Still, he said, last year’s surge did not diminish this year’s stock. Steinhart and other growers have flexibility on how many trees to harvest. Of his own Noble firs in Oregon, 20 percent were burned, so he elected to cut more Douglas firs instead. Growers can always borrow a little from next year’s supply, if necessary, or harvest trees that are a bit smaller.

Hundley of the National Christmas Tree Association said there is one reason for the tighter stocks this year that has nothing to do with the pandemic or the world’s supply chain headaches: During the financial crisis of 2008, many growers didn’t have the capital to plant a lot of trees, and national plantings dipped.

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“The previous financial crisis caused fewer to be planted, so we don’t have an oversupply right now. It’s a supply that matches demand,” he said. A number of years of oversupply meant many growers were not profitable and that, for several years, even on the day after Christmas, it was common to see hundreds of unpurchased trees stacked and waiting for the chipper.

“Because of the better supply-and-demand match this year, by Christmas Eve most tree lots will be sold out. We’re okay with this,” Hundley said.

There has always been tension between artificial-tree producers and live-tree growers. The latter has lost ground to the former and now nearly 80 percent of household trees are artificial. Hundley said that often the American Christmas Tree Association has spoken on behalf of the whole industry, but it sometimes doesn’t accurately reflect the realities of the live-tree industry.

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Take transportation costs, for instance, Hundley said. “All this transportation talk largely came out of concerns for the artificial tree supply, which comes on ships from overseas. Real trees are not so much that way. A third are grown very near where they are purchased. And on choose-and-cut farms there’s no shipping, obviously. No one is shipping live trees from the West Coast to the East Coast or vice versa. We sell as close to home as possible,” he said.

Steinhart, whose large-scale operations require trees to be transported, said freight is up 25 percent from last year, and he has had to increase pay from $13 to $16 per hour for his H-2A foreign visa workers this year. Even with increased costs, he anticipates another profitable year for growers. “Covid benefited us from a financial standpoint,” he said.

The big unknown, according to Schaefer, who runs Noble Mountain Tree Farm, is what happens when consumers see the prices for artificial trees surge significantly more than those for live trees.

“I saw artificial trees at Home Depot for $600 to $1,000, and you can get a live tree for $70,” he said. “I think what’s going to happen is demand is going up 5 to 10 percent for live trees, and that’s going to create this shortage situation.”