Get your Christmas tree early this year and expect a price increase, NC farmers say
Posted November 17, 2021 8:06 a.m. EST
Updated November 18, 2021 11:46 a.m. EST
Durham, N.C. — Farmers warn that this year Christmas trees are going to be more expensive than they were last year.
And don’t expect prices to go down next Christmas. Farmers say that prices are likely going to stay elevated for the next couple years.
"Next year [the market] may be a little bit tighter than this year," said Byron May, who runs Jordan Lake Christmas Tree Farm.
There are also fewer trees to go around, so sellers urge people to buy a tree sooner rather than later. Last year, Christmas trees sold out in a matter of weeks.
Donovan Alexander Watson, owner of Perkins Orchard in Durham, said that his farm had to turn away around 4,000 families who were looking for trees last year. They sold out of Christmas trees the first week of December.
Officials with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension say North Carolina produces nearly a fourth of all trees sold in the United States. Because of that, locals will have a better chance at getting a tree than people from outside the state.
Some states are having to ship Christmas trees from Canada to southern parts of the U.S., Watson said.
"I would advise that customers come prepared," he said. "A lot of lots will have a price increase."
The problem behind NC's Christmas tree shortage
North Carolina Fraser firs take on average eight years to grow from seed to finish.
Most farmers in the industry are maintaining a family businesses and have had the farm passed down to them. It’s difficult to break into the business, because the farm won’t turn a profit for nearly a decade.
“The problem is a lot of the growers are just getting older,” according to Scott Smith, owner of Scott's Christmas Tree Farm.
Most growers are between the ages of 60 to 80. Smith, 45, said he’s one of the youngest growers in the business.
Smith, from Sparta, is one of the few sellers in Durham who grows, harvests and sells his own trees. He used to have eight lots filled with trees, but now he only has one in the Woodcraft Shopping Center near Southpoint.
“A lot of growers have gotten completely out or sold to bigger growers,” Smith said.
The tree shortage was not caused by the pandemic, like the computer chip shortage — but instead is the result of something that happened a decade ago.
“The problem started 8 or 10 years ago, when growers quit planting as many,” he said.
There was a dip in Christmas tree prices, and they sold for much cheaper. A lot of growers got out of the industry, he says, and the ones that didn’t planted fewer trees.
Watson attributes this shortage to the market crash of 2008 and says fewer people were buying trees that year and demand plummeted.
There's also been more of a demand for bigger Christmas trees — some over 8 or 9 feet tall, according to May. Many families are requesting large trees to fill new homes with high ceilings, and Fraser firs take an extra couple years to grow that height.
What farmers say is the solution
Farmers who spoke to WRAL News agree that North Carolina needs more younger people in the agriculture industry.
Watson hopes educating younger people will help them appreciate the beauty of farming.
"I think we could turn this thing around," he said. "We've got a lot of passionate farmers around here. It's in their blood. It's in my blood. It could be in your blood as well."
Watson, now 27, has been working at his family businesses — one of the only Black-owned produce markets in Durham — since he was a teenager.
He ran for North Carolina Department of Agriculture Commissioner in 2020 hoping to make changes to lift up North Carolina's farming industry. Although he lost the Democratic primary, Watson was the first Black man to run for that seat.
"It can be a beautiful thing when you've got that rural connection and consumer connection," Watson said.
May has hope the market will bounce back soon as younger people start taking up growing again.
"I think it's turning around," he said. "There's a lot of folks getting back into growing."
Watson suggests that the state needs to open up more land for farmers to create "Christmas Tree reservoirs," and support more farmers during the off-season.
Now growers are planting more trees, Smith said, but it will take five to eight years for the market to settle back into place.
“I would say trees [cost] almost double from what they were three years ago,” Smith said.
What farmers are doing to meet demand
May had to be creative to meet the demand for live trees. He started growing Carolina Sapphire trees to replace some of the demand he had for Fraser firs.
Customers can get the Christmas experience by picking out their tree and cutting one down in Durham, rather than having to travel all the way to the North Carolina mountains for a tree.
"A lot of people want to come out and cut a tree, and we're able to offer those as an alternative," May said.
Sapphire trees are much less expensive than firs and can be grown in central North Carolina. One tree can grow two feet a year.
"These are much less expensive, we sell them six to eight bucks a foot," he said.
All three farmers said they are doing their best to keep prices down for customers, and they aren't expecting to increase the price of trees by too much.
Most local sellers will begin offering Christmas trees this weekend. Their advice is to come early before their supply is gone.