by Samantha Graves
Michigan ranks third behind Oregon and North Carolina for Christmas trees grown, but shares something in common with most Christmas tree states; while the 2016 season looks good, continued drought in many regions of the U.S. along with an aging grower population could spell trouble on the horizon.
Marsha Gray was recently appointed Director of Industry Communications and Government Affairs with the National Christmas Tree Association, and has worked in years previous with the Michigan Christmas Tree Association. She said, “The next five to 10 years could be quite interesting,” adding that though she has seen an uptick in the number of younger growers interested in “choose and cut” operations, older populations with larger-scale operations are finding it difficult to “pass the baton.”
“Like most segments of the agriculture, we are seeing fewer young people interested in Christmas tree production and this is definitely not unique to Michigan, but evident in all Christmas tree growing areas.”
Gray said the industry is working hard to promote the use of real trees with help from the USDA Research and Promotion program. The program works by allocating a fraction of the total profit of growers selling more than 500 trees annually toward a fund to be used by the industry for research and promotion of Christmas trees.
“2016 will be the first year for a significant promotional effort on part of the Christmas Tree Promotion Board,” said Gray. “It will be exciting to see if this type of program can help increase demand for fresh Christmas trees.”
While there are no specific incentives for Christmas tree farmers in Michigan, Gray said Michigan’s cold fall temperatures and soil conditions make the state appealing to growers. Gray said 2016 should be a great season, but expressed some concern over recent drought conditions, “The drought that we are currently experiencing is challenging our growers and most are actively irrigating to sustain the seedlings and smaller trees.”
Recent drought isn’t an issue for current tree sales, but whether or not growers irrigated during dry spells or used other measures to reduce stress to trees, could impact future inventory.
Tom Norby, with the Oregon Christmas Tree Growers Association agrees, though he said drought is only one issue Christmas tree growers face today.
“The Christmas tree industry in the Pacific northwest is going through a dramatic period of change.” Norby said the industry is facing an “under supply and much higher prices” due in part to older populations of tree farmers selling their business, retiring, or moving on to more stable crops. Norby has witnessed a move from smaller farms (under 20 acres) to big growers. He added that a number of other factors are currently influencing the industry including trouble finding adequate labor and needle disease issues.
Despite these factors, Norby does see a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.
“Do not get me wrong, I think the outlook for growing Christmas trees is actually pretty good. Prices are going to be up for several years and people will finally be able to make a living.” His concern is that a reduction in supply might drive prices up too high for the future consumer. “I fear those with trees will raise their prices so much it may drive customers away from natural trees.”
Norby said the industry must meet demand, but not oversaturate the market. “My hope is that the industry grows in a reasonable way and does not get flooded again with an oversupply of trees,” he said.
Gray said this issue isn’t limited to Oregon: “The Christmas tree industry has faced oversupply and undersupply in all growing regions at different points in time.” She said the time it takes for a tree to mature is the biggest factor and forces growers to “be prognosticators as well as farmers.”
Gray said she hopes the ongoing work of the Christmas Tree Promotion Board will offer consistent data growers can use to determine seasonal plantings.
Niche markets including those farms growing “natural or un-sheared trees” are growing in demand, according to Norby. “There is also a trend in growing and selling smaller trees as people transition into smaller and smaller living spaces, where there is just not the space for an eight foot tree,” he said. “The ‘tabletop’ or up to four foot trees are in high demand.”
Gray said the sale of smaller trees is “a developing market for our industry.” She went on to say; “We have seen a trend toward tabletop trees in the urban market, where it’s just difficult to haul a tree up a flight of stairs to an apartment, or condo.” This is an advantage to the grower who might have trees with great tops, but bare or missing lower branches. The top may be salvaged and sold as a smaller tree. Marsha said some growers are trimming smaller trees “so they fill out nicely, but are shorter.”
While uncertainty lingers, it is not something unfamiliar to farmers, whether growing Christmas trees or apples. Gray hopes data collected through the Christmas Tree Promotion and Research program will help.
“Assessments are based on trees harvested and sold as well as imported,” Gray explained. “Over time, the industry will begin to get more reliable data and tree production and sales.” And this, she hopes, will take the guesswork out of planting for growers.