Local businesses navigate Christmas tree shortage

Noel Christmas Trees
Mom and pop shop businesses in the Puget Sound region say they are facing the challenge of a tree shortage; however, they pride themselves in offering more fresh trees than their competitors and giving their customers a memorable experience. Photo: Mike Richards

‘Tis the season for Christmas tree selling, and Washington’s tree selling businesses and tree farms are busy cycling in trees so community members can take them home for decoration and enjoyment this holiday.

Staff from those businesses say they face several challenges during the holiday season, including a low success rate of trees surviving to maturity, a tree shortage which drives prices up and competition with plastic trees as a reusable alternative. These small businesses offer jobs for young people and other residents of the local community and bring attention and business to other local companies.

According to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) data, Washington state in 2016 sold $18,925,000 worth of cut Christmas trees and short rotation woody crops. During that year, an estimated 250 Washington growers harvested 1.5 million trees from the state’s 18,000 acres.

Joe Desimone, Owner of Hobart-based Papa’s Tree Farm told Lens that he faces difficulty with the planning of inventory each year.

“We plant seedlings starting around the first of March, and your loss rate of those seedlings is about 50 percent throughout that year’s planting. A lot of the seedlings don’t make it.”

Desimone said other challenges include maintaining and shearing the trees, controlling the ground weeds as the trees grow and preventing disease and bug-related damage in the spring.

Half of Desimone’s staff are family members, and this includes his nephews and sons, as well as family friends. He also hires kids out of the local high school.

“It benefits these kids to get outside, and they are doing manual labor which doesn’t happen as much for kids…they are learning all kinds of different things.”

Although there are six tree farms “within a rock’s throw of each other,” Desimone said he does not notice any direct competition from those businesses.

“I would like to have more inventory…then I could sell more trees,” he added. “Usually, we shut down because we sell out. My biggest challenge is keeping the inventory, and that goes back to the seedling loss rate.”

Erik Balderas, Cashier at produce market Top Banana, said: “Christmas trees are our biggest money-making thing of the year because of margins…it’s a very important time for us to sell as many trees as possible so we can continue to do business.”

He added that the Ballard-area mom and pop shop faces competition from larger stores who buy in bulk. However, Top Banana has success with returning buyers because the company sells “the best and freshest trees” and would rather receive a smaller shipment of fresh trees than a large quantity.

The store sells roughly 3,000 trees each season and its trees are grown in Chehalis and Shelton. Balderas said other tree sellers might bring their trees in from Oregon, North Carolina or Canada because of the shortage.

“Overall, selling trees does get more tough because people may lean towards fake trees as prices continue to go up,” he continued.

During the last recession it cost growers four or five dollars to plant each tree, said Balderas. Those growers didn’t plant for almost two years because they were unable to get bank loans.

Top Banana has had the same growers for more than 20 years, however the recent shortage has caused the store to bring in more varieties to act as a supplement to what they normally sell.

“Here we are feeling the effects of the shortage. We’ve tried to fill in the gaps and push for Frasers because they are like the other variety but are easier to get.”

During the Christmas season, the business tends to have a high turnover rate and receives trees within a day or two of being cut. Top Banana’s inventory can hold around 300 trees, and the store might sell over 300 trees each day on the weekends.

He added that while some people might choose to purchase plastic trees because they can be reused, for some it’s about the experience or tradition of going out to buy a tree.

“Some people who have never come here are surprised that we sell fruit year-round,” said Balderas. “It brings attention to the rest of our business and reminds them that other companies are here and that supports other local businesses.

“Stores like this are important for the community. We hire first-time workers,” adding that all of Top Banana’s employees are either young people from the neighborhood or parents who shop at the store.Balderas said the business prides itself on educating people and showing them how to test out their tree and identify quality.

Even if someone has grown up with a fake tree, Balderas says “we are happy to show you, and have you pick one out for yourself… we have a tree for everyone.”

 

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