Why Good Christmas Trees Might Be Hard to Find

A national Christmas tree shortage could make finding the perfect evergreen a bit more difficult this year. (Photo: gpointstudio/Shutterstock)

If you're someone who enjoys the beauty and smell of a real Christmas tree, you might have to search a little harder and pull a few more bills out of your wallet this holiday season.

Some news outlets in the country’s top Christmas tree-producing states have been reporting on tree shortages and potential price increases. They've pointed the finger at hot, dry weather over the past couple of summers, as well as many farmers abandoning the business after the recession of 2008.

In Portland, Oregon, KGW reports that longtime farms have shut down due to lack of trees to sell. The shortage will likely drive up prices, industry watchers say.

Oregon State University Christmas tree expert Chal Landgren told the station he knows of several Christmas tree farms that have closed this year.

"Across the country we're in the same boat, North Carolina is the second biggest producer and they're having a bit of a shortage as well," said Landgren said, pointing out that people might expect to pay as much as $20 more per tree.

Farmers are not only working with fewer trees, but shorter trees, Mary Gruber who helps run Old Stone Farm in Chester County, Pennsylvania, told WHYY.

“I had half a dozen calls for 12 to 15-foot trees which a lot of people don’t have anyway, but something that tall, you better grab it quick if you’re lucky to find one — and it’s going to be very expensive,” she said.

A shortage one year can have an impact on business forever, Gruber said.

“It’s a problem if people can’t get a tree one year because they’re likely to buy an artificial tree,” she said. “And then you’re not going to see them coming back in the future because they’re going to be pulling out the plastic tree each year.”

'We've never run out of Christmas trees'

Those looking for hard-to-find-varieties may have better luck visiting u-cut farms rather than a traditional lot.
Those looking for hard-to-find-varieties may have better luck visiting u-cut farms rather than a traditional lot. (Photo: SupportPDX [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)

According to the American Christmas Tree Association, 32.8 million real Christmas trees were purchased in 2018. In the most recently survey (2016), the group found that of the 100 million U.S. households displaying a tree, 81% opted for an artificial version.

Much of the current shortage stems from an oversupply of seedlings planted during the boom years of the early 2000s. Because some varieties can take as long as 6-12 years to reach maturity, looking that far into the future can sometimes be a roll of the dice.

Unfortunately for tree farmers, the harvest for the crop placed in the ground at the turn of the century coincided with the arrival of the Great Recession. With too much product and not enough customers, many farms exited the business. Those that hung on cut back on planting seedlings as Americans invested in artificial varieties.

For those traditionalists that remain, the hunt for the perfect tree — in particular for hard-to-find varieties like Noble firs — have farms around the country struggling to keep pace. It's estimated it may be another six or eight years before the industry is able to fully close the gap. Add in additional pressures from increasing droughts, wildfires and a lack of quality seedlings, and that timeframe may grow larger still.

In the meantime, growers are trying their best to gently raise prices without crippling customers' wallets. A poll conducted by the National Christmas Tree Association found that the "mean average" spent by consumers per tree — that's a measurement of what those who took the poll spent, not the average price of a tree — rose from $36.50 in 2008 to nearly $78 in 2018.

Meanwhile, Tim O’Connor, who heads the National Christmas Tree Association, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the “shortage is taken out of context."

O’Connor said the supply will continue to be tight, but “the reality is we’ve never run out of Christmas trees.”

Finding the perfect tree

To gauge if the tree you're interested in will survive the holidays, experts recommend the 'sniff, lift, and snap' test.
To gauge if the tree you're interested in will survive the holidays, experts recommend the 'sniff, lift, and snap' test. (Photo: Phil Roeder [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)

To improve your chances of finding the perfect Christmas tree, experts recommend inquiring if your local farm or lot has an early reservation program. You may also have more luck at u-cut farms than with store- or lot-stocked trees. To figure out if the variety you're interested will last throughout the holiday season, Bryan Ostlund of the Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association urges consumers to "sniff, lift, and snap." He explains:

"A needle on a Christmas tree — a Nobel fir, a Douglas fir — [is] kind of like a carrot," Ostlund told Northwest News Network. "If you go to bend a nice fresh carrot that’s still full of water it snaps readily. If it’s dehydrated it going to be more, it’s going to bend much more easily. It isn’t going to snap right away."

Lifting the tree to gauge its weight is an excellent way to feel whether it's hydrated or not. As for sniffing, if the smell doesn't make you want to haul out the holly, it's probably best to move on.