Iowa Public Television


O' Christmas Tree

posted on November 30, 2007

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For many people selecting a Christmas tree is part of the holiday tradition. Up until the 1930's, when artificial trees became more popular, that meant a hike in the woods to find and fell the perfect tree. Today though, the nation's 22,000 tree farms produce virtually all of the trees. According to the Missouri-based National Christmas Tree Association, consumers purchased 28.6 million trees last year and the retail market was valued at $1.2 billion. Regardless of your personal preference, this much is known: real trees are "growing" in prominence. And, as Jeannie Campbell discovered, some producers are dreaming of a "green" Christmas.

The Davis family will have something in common with nearly 30 million other American families this holiday season when they celebrate Christmas around a real tree.

Jeff Davis: "It's just fun to come out and pick out a tree. You can get a different one every year, depending on what you look for. We have a good time and everybody gets a little bit of input into what kind of tree we get."

In 1989, the sales of real Christmas trees and artificial trees were equal, according to the USDA. But nine years later, sales of real trees had dropped to 40 percent of total sales, while sales of artificial Christmas trees had climbed to a little more than 60 percent.

Jan Anderson: "Real pine scent… Artificial trees... And also they have these little incense things you can plug in that have Christmas trees on it and everything, so wait… Psssheew! There you go sir, Merry Christmas."

In the past few years, live tree sales have rebounded. Nearly 33 million live trees were sold in 2005, according to the National Christmas Tree Association. That's up 50 percent from 2002. However in 2006, sales dropped by 4.5 million trees. This year, growers are expecting their best harvest in the last ten years.

Steve Fennig, Bryant, Indiana: "It can be a lot better than an acre of corn. It takes a lot more work than an acre of corn. So, you have to weigh the amount of labor it takes to grow an acre of this versus growing 100 acres of corn maybe or something."

Steve Fennig is president of the Indiana Christmas Tree Growers Association and along with his wife Terry, farm 1,600 acres of corn and soybeans, 70 acres of wheat and six acres of Christmas trees in northern Indiana. Like many growers, the Fennigs don't grow Christmas trees as their primary crop.

Steve Fennig: "It works pretty well for a crop farmer because of the timing of things. We can plant the trees in the spring before it is fit to be in the fields. Usually we plant the trees in March and then we come back and prune in the summertime after we've finished spraying the beans and put nitrogen on the corn. Then it's time to prune in late June and early July. But there's trade offs, and it doesn't fit every operation but it could certainly fit in some operations."

The Fennigs began growing Christmas Trees in 1984, partly as a way to save for their children's college education. Using converted pastureland they owned and with fir seedlings costing only a dollar each, their initial investment was low. Adding to the appeal was that in eight years, those $1 seedling trees could be harvested and sold for $35 to $40 apiece. Still, according to the Fennigs, if the idea simply was to cover the cost of college, it would have been much easier to set aside a few acres of corn each year.

Steve Fennig: "And honestly, there's times that I have thought that's probably what we should have done. But, they had a lot of experiences here that they wouldn't have had if I would have given them an acre of corn and…"

Terry Fennig: "They've had a lot more business experiences too because they got very involved in the marketing."

Steve Fennig: "We wanted them to have something they could be a part of that would be their own."

The Fennigs, and Christmas tree growers and retailers in 37 states, are making the holidays a little brighter for military families through contributions to "Trees for Troops." The program, created by the Christmas Spirit Foundation and FedEx three years ago, plans to distribute 20,000 Christmas trees to 25 bases in 17 countries with 400 trees destined for the Middle East.

Tom Dull, Thorntown, Indiana: It's a way to give to the troops…To help support the troops and lift their morale at Christmas time. What a great opportunity to be a part of sending the Christmas spirit to troops who are going to be away from their families and homes at Christmas time."

Purchasing a living tree also may be a step, albeit a small one, in reducing the trade deficit. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, 85 percent of all artificial trees are imported from China, while domestically the real Christmas tree industry employs 100,000 people. Global economics don't seem to matter, however, when it comes to searching for the perfect tree. For Market to Market I'm Jeannie Campbell.


Tags: agriculture Christmas farmers holidays Indiana news trees