Iowa Public Television


Va. Christmas Tree Growers See Bargain Hunters

posted on December 11, 2009

RICHMOND, Va (AP) - The list of Christmas essentials still includes a tree, even if many people are hunting for bargains this year.

"Our sales have been pretty good actually, better than I thought it would be with the economy dragging," said Rodney Richardson, who harvests up to 15,000 Fraser fir trees on his Grayson County farm this time of year.

He sells them to mom-and-pop retailers and chain stores and at two Christmas tree lots he operates in northern Virginia.

Trees remain among the most popular holiday decorations, but they haven't escaped the economic downturn. Sales of real and artificial trees dropped in 2008, but artificial trees took a bigger hit, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.

The organization, which advocates buying real trees, said that U.S. consumers spent $1.03 billion buying 28.2 million farm-grown Christmas trees in 2008. That was down 10 percent from 2007.

However, the number of artificial trees fell 35 percent to about 11.7 million, according to the group.

The organization didn't conduct a consumer survey this year to forecast tree sales, but it reported that members around the country have seen good sales so far.

Several Virginia tree farmers and retailers also said sales this season have been at least steady and might end up better that last year.

"I feel like this year will hold up and be as good as last year," said Bill Francisco, who grows Fraser firs and white pines in the Shenandoah Valley and sells them at two lots in the Richmond area.

"I think people throughout the state and the (Richmond) metro area are thinking more about buying (Virginia-grown) trees."

Rainy weather this fall has been good for Christmas trees, Francisco said. "It gives the trees a lot of moisture and will help out a lot with needle retention," he said.

Prices have held steady with last year, he said, and a reported glut of trees in the Northeast hasn't affected the Virginia market.

At Claybrooke Farm in Louisa County, one of central Virginia's cut-your-own Christmas tree farms, sales were propelled by last weekend's snowy weather, which seemed to get people in the mood for an old-time holiday tradition.

"Sunday was probably our biggest day ever," said Virginia Carroll, who owns the farm with her husband, John.

Carroll said she has noticed more calls this year from people asking about prices. At most farms or retailers, real trees can run from $20 to more than $100, depending on the trees' variety and size.

"What we have tried to do is provide a wide range of reasonable pricing so that no one who wishes to get a tree will go away without one," said Carroll, who also is president of the Virginia Christmas Tree Growers Association.

The economy seems to be prompting more bargain hunting for Christmas trees, said Kris Riley, manager of the West End Farmers Market in Henrico County. "Instead of going for the higher-end trees, they are hitting the discount lots," she said.

Riley said she has a large inventory of Fraser firs, all from one Virginia farm, that she is hoping to sell at the market Saturday morning. Rainy weather last weekend kept many shoppers away, she said.

"They are really beautiful trees, and first quality," she said. "Hopefully the discriminating buyers will still be coming out this year."

Virginia ranked eighth in Christmas-tree production in 2007 with nearly 314,000 Christmas trees harvested, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's most recent census. That was down about 38 percent from nearly 508,000 in 2002, the last time the USDA published Christmas tree harvest data.

Most other Christmas tree-producing states also experienced declines in harvests during the same period, but the top two producing states--Oregon and North Carolina--each saw production rise 6 percent.

Tags: agriculture Christmas farmers holidays news trees Virginia