Spokane Journal of Business

How pricey are thy branches?

Shortages, price hikes hit Christmas tree market

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Shortages are causing price hikes up and down the West Coastand were not talking about electrical power.

Because of changes in the Christmas tree-growing business a decade or more ago, the supply of Christmas trees has shrunk. Following that most elemental of economic principles, the law of supply and demand, prices have risen as a result, tree retailers and wholesalers here say.

The trend is especially noticeable with one popular species this year, the Noble fir.

Whats more, because it takes anywhere from six to 10 years to grow more Christmas trees to stem that shortage, were likely to see higher Christmas tree prices for several years to come, says Tom Leege, who owns Bluehaven Tree Farm, near Harrison, Idaho, with his wife, Carolyn.

Theres no quick fix to something like this, he says.

Leege, who is a member of both the National Christmas Tree Association and the Inland Empire Christmas Tree Association, says he raised his prices last year for the first time in a decade. He wasnt alone: The average price of a Christmas tree rose 28 percent last year, the first time in many years there had been a price hike, he says.

The average retail price paid for Christmas trees this year wont be known until surveys are done after the holidays, says Rick Dungey, of the St. Louis-based National Christmas Tree Association.

A quick check of retail lots and growers, however, shows that most raised their prices a bit this year, partially in response to the shortage and partially because higher fuel prices made it more expensive to ship the trees.

Kitty Jenkins, co-owner of Jenkins & Son Tree Farm Inc., in Sandpoint, says Jenkins & Son raised its tree prices by just $1, but Ive heard of people that raised them $10 and $15. Jenkins & Son, which has been in business 27 years, sells its trees wholesale out of Sandpoint, and retail at two Christmas tree lots in the Pocatello, Idaho, area.

Spokane Boys Inc.s four retail Christmas tree lots in Spokane raised the prices of their trees by about $5 this year, the first increase weve had in six years, says the companys Brandon Morrow.

At Robs Fresh Firs, a Christmas tree lot at the corner of Sprague Avenue and McDonald Road in the Spokane Valley, My prices increased, on average, $4 to $5 a tree this year, says Rob Clark, who owns the business with his wife, Nancy.

Clark says he didnt even attempt to bring in any Noble firs to sell.

They wanted so stinkin much money for them, he says. The wholesale price was outrageous$25 more per tree.

Nobles are a special case because they can be grown successfully in only a few areas. Noble growers cant keep up with demand at all, Leege says.

Jenkins says the demand for Nobles is so strong, and the supply so short, that some restrictive deals are being cut.

Ive heard of people who, because they are the only game in town for Nobles and Dougs (Douglas firs), say, If you want your Nobles you have to get your Grand fir here (too).

Nobles arent the only trees that are in short supply, however.

Most tree growers have sold all the trees they wanted to sell this year and there are still calls coming in, Leege says.

Stan Clouse, who owns Camden Ranch Christmas Trees, in Elk, Wash., says he doesnt sell his u-cut trees wholesale, but nevertheless hes been swamped with calls from retailers looking for trees to sell.

All I know is that for a period of time, I was getting four or five phone calls a day from people requesting trees on wholesale. I couldnt help them, he says.

The shortages plaguing the Christmas tree market today started two decades ago, Leege says.

When I first started the business (Bluehaven Tree Farm) about 20 years ago, there was again a shortage of trees, and everyone was promoting the shortage of Christmas trees as a way to make money. A lot of people got into the business at that time.

About 10 years later, there was a glut of Christmas trees on the market, and prices were stagnant, he says.

That really discouraged a lot of people in the industry. Because of that, a lot of people just drifted out of the business.

Leege says there are about 15,000 Christmas tree growers in North America, and about 70 million trees are planted each year.

Jenkins says growing Christmas trees seems easy, which is why so many people jumped into the business a decade ago.

Its one of those businesses where people drive by and they go, Hey, I could do that on the weekends. But Christmas trees need care and pruning so that they grow into the healthy, shapely trees that buyers want, she says.

Thats why you see so many abandoned Christmas tree farms. They think theyre going to plant that seedling and come back in eight years and theyre gonna be a millionaire, Jenkins says. And it doesnt work like that.

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