If you think the retail shops that put up Christmas decorations as soon as they take down their Halloween ones are early in focusing on the holiday season, you should talk to a Christmas tree farmer.

On average, it takes between six to eight years to grow a crop of Christmas trees to a marketable height. And a lot can happen in a half a dozen years that can change the outlook for a Christmas tree crop from one season to the next. Farmers will be facing challenges in the 2023 Christmas tree season brought about by developments over the past several years.

According to Lisa Angevine-Bergs, executive director of the Connecticut Christmas Tree Growers Association, Christmas tree farmers will likely have to raise their retail prices this year.

“I would expect to see a slight increase in tree prices in Connecticut for the 2023 Christmas season. Most farms had to increase their prices last year due to the losses from the drought of 2016 – this would have caused inventory to be lower in 2021 to 2023,” she said. “Most Connecticut farms lost a majority of their seedlings due to drought last year as well. Cost of seedlings, transportation, irrigation equipment, fertilizers and fuel have continued to increase, hence the need for farmers to charge a bit more for their trees.”

Jeffrey Owen, an Extension forestry specialist specializing in Christmas trees for North Carolina State University, agreed that Christmas tree farmers in his state will likewise need to charge their customers a bit more than last year.

“While many growers in North Carolina and elsewhere have stepped up production to meet demand, many of those trees are still growing to size. Most growers that I have talked to in North Carolina are still struggling to come up with all the trees needed to satisfy current wholesale customers, let alone add new ones,” Owen stated. “Where they typically bought extra trees from other growers in the past, the other growers don’t have extras either. In years that go smoothly with nicely matched up supply and demand, it is a result of behind-the-scenes buying, trading and selling. That internal industry market ensures that growers can meet all their customers’ needs. When those extra trees aren’t readily available, the system bogs down. Christmas tree growers can have the right number of trees but in the wrong size, grade or species.”

Lisa Angevine-Bergs and Jeff Owen

Owen added that large trees – those above seven feet – are particularly short in supply because sales of smaller tree sizes have been so strong over recent years (and if they get cut as five- to seven-footers, they never become eight- to 10-footers). When farmers produce a crop with a rotation that can take 10 years, it is difficult to change paths quickly and growers usually miss their perfect level of inventory.

All of this combined with the effects of problems like freeze-related bud abortion that occurred earlier this year and perennial issues with root disease and some growers will be selling fewer trees they expected to harvest from what they planted six to eight years ago.

“Many growers express nervousness about continued price increases,” Owen said. “But prices increased last year anyway. I would expect wholesale prices to remain the same or go up slightly. I would be surprised to see retail prices drop unless there is a locally depressed economy. I would expect other regions of the country to be in a similar situation as North Carolina.”

Owen did receive some calls last year from retailers who he said raised prices too much too quickly and did not sell out of trees. “I think they found the ceiling for their local retail market. If the economy stays strong, I would expect sales to also remain strong. Retailers either sell fewer trees at higher prices or more trees at lower prices,” he explained. “Basic supply and demand. It’s a problem if they are overly optimistic and buy too many trees for a high-end clientele that isn’t there.”

He recommended tree farmers adapt their marketing strategy, pointing out the virtues of smaller trees and directing their customers toward them if their supply of larger trees runs short. “When my children were small or I had a new puppy in the house, we enjoyed a small tree set on a trunk or even a tabletop tree. By raising it above the floor it still had the visual impact of a larger tree. Even a small tree provides the aroma and authenticity of a real Christmas tree,” he said.

Looking ahead, Angevine-Bergs advised that farmers should be wary of how current developments will affect their business in the future. “Climate change has been a major factor in the successful production of Christmas trees across the United States. Certain species of trees are becoming more challenging to grow due to hotter and drier conditions – Douglas fir is one example,” she said. “Time will tell if the wildfires in Canada will affect the inventory coming from the north.”

Owen concurred. “Factors like spring freezes, root disease aggravated by wet weather, insect pest injury and state quarantine regulations can impact current year inventory,” he added. “Growers are still assessing the effects of this year’s spring freeze injury but most growers should be close with their supply.”

by Enrico Villamaino