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The Big Short: How The Financial Crisis Gave Us Smaller Trees For Christmas This Year

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon
Two weeks after Thanksgiving, South Austin Optimist had already sold out of its inventory of 340 trees.

We are in the midst of a real Christmas tree problem: Nationally, we have fewer trees this season. The good news is you can still find plenty in Central Texas.

The bad news is it may be harder to find than in Christmases past and will likely be shorter and more expensive. 

It’s important to remember this is a crop, and, like any other crop, there are good years and bad years.

North Carolina produces the second most trees in the U.S. each year, with most of those coming from a single county: Ashe County.

“If you look at our average sales in Ashe County, for the past three to four years, we’ve been right at 3.5 million trees getting sent out of our county. And that’s not really fluctuated that much,” said Travis Birdsell with the North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension in Ashe County. “If you did a deeper look at the sizes that are going out, you probably have constricted a little bit on the upper end.”

That means, on top of a national tree shortage, we’re getting shorter trees.

“Oh, heck yeah. We’re seeing it firsthand,” said Jimmy Coan, owner of Papa Noel Christmas Trees. Coan is a tree farmer in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, and every year he loads up 20 tractor-trailers of mainly Fraser firs to sell in Austin and San Antonio.

“This is our farmers market,” he said. “It’s got some distance to it. It’s not farm to table; it’s farm to living room.”

In addition to the trees he culls from his farm, he orders Noble and Douglas firs from the Pacific Northwest to fill out the selection at his roadside stands in Austin. This year, he says, there were fewer farms supplying trees, driving up some of his wholesale tree costs as much as 45 percent.

He says that has a lot to do with the last recession.

“We did have a lot of farmers there that were forced out of business in the recession in 2008, '09,” Coan said. “Their money sources dried up. They couldn’t replant. And since a tree takes 10-plus years to grow, we’re just now seeing the ramifications of what happened eight, nine, 10 years ago.”

"Frankly, I think growers are demanding and getting prices that aren’t sustainable in this industry, yet they keep doing it."

Coan ordered only 30 percent of the trees from the Pacific Northwest that he normally does, because of increased tree and trucking costs.

But, there’s another problem at the root of all of this, he says.

“There are fewer young people who are continuing on in their parents’ footsteps and becoming Christmas tree growers,” he said. “So, there are fewer and fewer farmers who are willing to plant a crop that takes 10 years to get to fruition. You have to be successful at something else to be a Christmas tree farmer, because how are you going to carry yourself through 10 years before you see a payday?”

That 10-year from planting to harvest yields what he calls “money” trees – those ranging between 6 and 8 feet. Relatively speaking, these are the big sellers, and it’s the size with which growers can get the most money per acre. Now, Coan says, farmers are choosing to go smaller.

“In the time that it takes me to have two rotations of those trees, I have one of these,” said Coan, pointing to a 15-foot tree behind him on one of his lots. “It sits there in the same plot of land longer – triple the years sometimes. When you prune those, you do it with a stepladder. It’s so labor intensive that more and more farmers just don’t want to mess with those big trees.”

Texas also produces Christmas trees, though the volume is only about 1 percent of North Carolina’s tree output. A quarter of those trees are grown in Bastrop County.

Mike and Beth Walterscheidt own Evergreen Farms in Elgin. Mike Walterscheidt was once the associate head of the Forestry Department at Texas A&M University. The couple has been running cut-your-own tree farms for three decades, and for them, 2017 is a pretty good year.

“Our crop is probably the best crop we’ve had for 10 or 12 years,” he said.

The Virginia pine they plant can grow to 7 feet in just five years, because of the longer growing season in Texas. He says they have a good number of 5- to 8-foot trees ready, but customers shouldn't expect to find any taller than that.

“We had quite a few to begin with, the first two weekends,” he said, “but most of the real big ones have been cut out now.”

He says they are anticipating staying open until Christmas Eve, but an early rush could change that.

In Austin this week, Sam Garcia was already dismantling his tree lot on South Lamar Boulevard. For decades his group, South Austin Optimist, has sold trees to raise money for its youth sports programs. This season Garcia took over ordering the trees and was worried about how the fundraiser would fare.

“Because we switched to a new company, I had a different type of tree,” he said. “I had a tree called a Nordmann, which was something we had never carried. So, I was a little nervous about how people would react to that. I ordered 60 of those, all the way up to 10 foot. I sold all my 10-foot trees within six days.”

Less than two weeks after Thanksgiving, South Austin Optimist sold out of its 340-tree inventory. Garcia says he’ll order more next year, if the prices are right.

But Coan of Papa Noel says trees will only get more expensive.

“Frankly, I think growers are demanding and getting prices that aren’t sustainable in this industry, yet they keep doing it,” he said.

That means, to control costs for both growers and retailers, they will meet somewhere in the middle. Faster crop rotations, shorter trees and higher prices per foot for buyers.

Jimmy is the assistant program director, but still reports on business and sports every now and then. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @maasdinero.
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