Christmas tree shortage will be felt for a long time

Edmund Garman
CC BY 2.0 Edmund Garman

When it comes to live Christmas trees, we're still feeling the effects of the Great Recession ten years ago.

If you had difficulty finding a Christmas tree this year, or had to pay through the nose in order to obtain one, you're not alone. A widespread Christmas tree shortage is afflicting the United States, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, where tree growers are short about 1.5 million trees this year and unable to meet demand.

An article in The Atlantic explains what's going on. The problem can be traced back to 20 years ago, when "overzealous planting" led to a bumper crop of fir trees ready to be harvested in the mid-2000s. But that turned out to be the Great Recession, when many Americans were tightening their purse strings and not in the market for live Christmas trees. The results were catastrophic for tree-growers in Oregon and Washington states, although those in Michigan and North Carolina have felt it, too.

Says Tim O’Connor, the executive director of the National Christmas Tree Association:

"Prices fell off the roof and growers were losing money, so they didn’t have the incentive — and in some cases they didn’t have the equity — to invest in planting seedlings."

Now it has been another 10 years since too-few trees were planted, and both buyers and retailers are feeling the squeeze. There just aren't enough trees to go around, and those that are available are marked up significantly.

The challenge is felt most acutely by small-scale, independent nurseries and vendors, which do not have the large contracts with Christmas tree farms that big box stores, such as Lowe's, Home Depot, Walmart, and Costco, hash out years in advance. Those big businesses are the first to receive their set numbers of trees, whereas the smaller businesses are forced to shop around and increase prices.

The Christmas tree industry is worried about another ripple effect of this shortage -- the rise in popularity of fake trees, which are now erected by more households each year than real trees are, and often mistakenly thought to be more environmentally-friendly. We've written about this on TreeHugger before. The Atlantic says:

"While both farmed and fake trees have environmental footprints, the debate over which is more sustainable mostly favors real trees. Real trees’ advantage stems from the facts that they capture carbon dioxide while they’re growing, that they are usually shipped regionally as opposed to overseas, and that they’re biodegradable."

Since fir trees take around 10-12 years to reach holiday height, there's no quick fix for this supply-and-demand problem. Nor do growers want a repeat of the past cycle, which means they'll likely "be more restrained" this time around. In the meantime, you could look into buying a live tree from a local supplier, opting for a smaller 'baby' tree, or even heading into the back 40 (owned by someone you know, of course) in order to cut down a tree of your choosing.

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