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Bringing Holiday Trees to Market

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We're barely past Thanksgiving and the commercial Christmas tree harvest has already peaked. A third of the Christmas trees sold in the United States are grown in the Pacific Northwest. Tom Banse reports on the challenges tree farmers face this year.

TOM BANSE reporting:

For you, the holidays might bring warm thoughts of twinkling boughs and fragrant smells, but at the evergreen's source, it's more like a noisy battle zone.

(Soundbite of a helicopter)

BANSE: This helicopter is lifting Christmas trees off of hills in southwest Washington state that trucks can't get to. A lot of large growers use choppers to move trees fast. That includes Mark Steelhammer, a tree farmer with a tough name to suit a tough business.

Mr. MARK STEELHAMMER (Tree Farmer): Yeah, helicopters are around $600 an hour plus, but they move a lot of trees, probably a thousand trees in an hour, at least.

(Soundbite of a helicopter)

BANSE: The heavy lifting is not the hardest part, at least not this year. Steelhammer is nervous about shipping prices and truck availability.

Mr. STEELHAMMER: With the hurricanes back there, it's good they--when it happened. It probably happened that early and not just a month or so ago, but they are still using a lot of trucks, of course, to bring supplies in for that. So we're competing with that.

BANSE: There's the daily battle to get fresh trees to market and then there's a larger lure to recapture market share from artificial trees. Steelhammer's president-elect of the National Christmas Tree Association. He says tree growers are stepping up the offensive against fake trees by donating money to a special marketing fund.

Mr. STEELHAMMER: I have a real hard problem with thinking about tradition with young kids, especially going to a store and getting the boxed-up plastic one that came in from China, you know, and--anyway, I like that real branches, real needles and real smell, you know.

BANSE: He says artificial trees present a serious threat. They now grace about one in three households. A fake tree doesn't cost much more, it might even come with lights built in. Local growers have another challenge, a swelling inventory of Christmas trees. Steelhammer says a surplus developed because many tree farmers responded to the recent decade of good prices by planting more seedlings. Now wholesale prices are sinking, anywhere from 5 to 30 percent.

Mr. STEELHAMMER: If prices come down a little, we'll still make good money. Those that have watched their operating expenses, etc. over the years and not gone out and gone too crazy on big new equipment and stuff will do fine, you know.

BANSE: Top prices for wholesalers probably won't translate into a deal for you. That's because the increased cost of trucking offsets the lower price retailers pay to acquire trees.

(Soundbite of a chain saw)

BANSE: Rochester, Washington, tree grower John Filman(ph) figures he'll be all right, too, as long as he keeps up his frenzied pace. He works pretty much non-stop from early November to the second week in December cutting, baling and shipping Christmas trees.

Mr. JOHN FILMAN (Tree Grower): Yeah, we cut them at the last moment. It's like the truck is coming tomorrow.

BANSE: A truck that will take these noble firs to Fresno. Earlier, his crew filled a refrigerated container destined for Hong Kong. Filman praises noble fir for looking fresh at Christmas even when cut early in November.

Mr. FILMAN: The main thing is just always have a fresh cut in the bottom and put it in water, stand it, keep it in water, out of the direct sun. The retailers, we hope, don't store them on the asphalt and things like that, especially with nobles, because the nobles will stay good and fresh for quite a while.

BANSE: Filman says some loads destined cross-country stop at an ice factory to get a frosting of crushed ice that keeps the needles moist as it melts. And with that, Filman begs off to repair a balky baler.

Mr. FILMAN: I've got to actually run...

BANSE: Yeah.

Mr. FILMAN: ...to the hardware store.

BANSE: OK.

So little time and 27,000 trees to harvest. For NPR News, I'm Tom Banse.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.