Christmas trees: tall ones in short supply, prices higher

Nov. 26—FRIEDENSBURG — The doors at Buck Run Evergreen Farms in Wayne Twp. had barely opened Friday morning when Ken McDowell threw an 11-foot Fraser fir on the back of his Ford F-150 pickup.

The tree was so tall, its top stuck out of the pickup's bed.

"I came early because I'm told there's not going to be as many tall ones this year," said McDowell, whose family room has a cathedral ceiling that can accommodate an 11-footer.

As Christmas tree farms began their retail season on Black Friday, the sentiment among growers seems to be: If you want a tall tree, get it sooner rather than later.

"The early birds like tall trees, around 9 or 10 feet," said Mike Moyer, who owns the tree farm west of Friedensburg.

The Pennsylvania Christmas Tree Growers Association insists there's no shortage of fresh-cut trees this season among the state's 1,400 growers.

"The size of the trees and species might not be as varied," said Aaron Grau, executive director. "And the cost is likely to be higher than last year."

Moyer, who began growing evergreens on 35 acres in 1999, prices Douglas firs at $10 a foot and all other species at $13 a foot.

Retail prices are affected by wholesale prices, he said, where trees go from $50 to $60.

Paul Alan Shealer, whose family owns Evergreen Acres Christmas Tree Farm near Auburn, said fresh-cut trees are in demand across the country.

In addition to demand, he said, prices are being driven by increasing costs of fertilizer, chemicals and labor.

"Our expenses have risen by 20 percent," he said. "We've had to mark up our prices accordingly."

Jason Brown, owner of Centre Street Hardware in Pottsville, expects his first shipment of Christmas trees this weekend.

Indications are, he said, that demand for fresh-cut trees is going to be high again this season.

"Already, we're getting calls asking for trees," he said earlier this week. "Last year, we sold out two weeks before Christmas."

Demand up

Pennsylvania growers, who rank fourth in production of Christmas trees in the U.S., will harvest about 1 million trees this season.

The industry is still feeling the effects of the recession of 2008, growers say.

For several years, during and after the recession, growers cut back on planting seedlings.

With evergreens taking from seven to 12 years to reach marketability, depending on size and variety, those seedlings would now be reaching maturity.

The demand for fresh-cut trees is such, Moyer said, that growers are harvesting them sooner.

"People are buying them as quickly as we can grow them," he said. "That's why you're not seeing as many taller trees."

Shealer, whose family supplied the White House Christmas tree this year, said this season's drought has affected the market and is likely to have consequences for the future.

"We lost hundreds of market-ready trees," he said.

J.C. Hill, who grows Christmas trees in the Lewistown Valley, said the number of growers is dwindling.

"A lot of growers are in their '60s," said Hill, whose tree farm encompasses some 700 acres. "And no one is coming into the industry."

Growing Christmas trees is labor intensive, he said, and it is becoming increasingly hard to find workers given the current labor shortage.

"It's a lot of work," Moyer said. "For the money you make, it's too much work unless you love it."

Tastes in Christmas trees are changing, Moyer said.

Frazier fir has replaced Douglas fir as the most popular variety, he said. Concolor fir, noted for its citrus scent, is also growing in popularity.

Turkish and Korean firs, he said, are also becoming popular.

Tradition, tradition

Bright and early Friday, the Minnich family drove from Pine Grove to Buck Run Evergreen Farms.

Nathan, 20, and his brother, Kolby, 16, harvested a 7-foot Frazier fir despite an overcast sky that threatened rain.

Their mother, Melissa, said getting a tree on Black Friday has become something of a tradition.

Kerry, their father, conceded that Saturday being the first day of rifle deer season might have had a little something to do with it.

At any rate, on Christmas morning there'll be an array of family heirlooms, including ornaments the boys made in Boy Scouts, on the tree.

Melissa, an administrative assistant at the Institute for Law Enforcement Education in Harrisburg, said Christmas in the Minnich household is a continuation of family tradition.

"If your parents made Christmas pleasant for you," she said, "you want to make it pleasant for your kids."

Janelle Bohr and her dad, Dave Bohr, of Mechanicsville, took home a 9-foot Douglas fir from Buck Run.

Janelle, 43, a licensed practical nurse, said the tree met her stringent standards.

"It has to be big and full," she said.

The Bohrs had picked out a tree more than a month ago when Buck Run opened for tagging.

"The tree will have my gram's ornaments and her angel on top, white lights and blue and silver balls," said Janelle, noting that her grandmother, Nancy Weigand, has passed.

Brian and Aurora DeWitt brought their sons, Oliver, 6, and Lyle, 3, to pick out a tree at Buck Run.

For the first time, the Pine Grove couple took home a 7-foot Korean fir, whose needles have an attractive silver underside. Commonly used as an ornamental yard tree, it is growing in popularity as a Christmas tree.

The DeWitts confided, however, that they had little to do with choosing the tree. Oliver, who's in first grade, made the choice.

Asked why he picked that tree, Oliver replied, tactfully, "It's not too big, and not too small."

McDowell, pastor of St. Paul UCC in Wayne Twp., sees the care with which families chose their trees as a sign that the meaning of Christmas endures.

"Christmas spreads a feeling of hope," he said. "It celebrates the spread of love to a world that desperately needs it."

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