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Business and Economy

How The Real Versus Fake Christmas Tree Debate Affects Maine Farmers

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Grower Jim Corliss acknowledges that things won't change overnight, but he says he is exasperated by the industry's inability to get together and stick to a plan.

This year, about 95 million households across the country will put up a Christmas tree, and about 80 percent of those trees will be artificial. Christmas tree growers in Maine and across the United States have seen their markets for live trees melting away for at least two generations. They’ve tried to turn the trend around, but the industry is divided over how to grow demand.

Jim Horan of Dixmont is buying a six-foot Balsam Fir and three wreaths at Piper Mountain Christmas Trees in the little farming community of Newburgh, Maine.

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Credit Robert F. Bukaty / Maine Public
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Maine Public
John White carries a Maine-grown Christmas tree at a Rotary Club tree lot Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2007, in South Portland, Maine.

"The artificial trees don't appeal to me at all. If that was the only choice I doubt I would have a tree," Horan says.

But Horan is part of a shrinking group of real tree buyers, and that's something the man he's buying the tree from, Jim Corliss, has been watching first-hand for decades. Corliss planted his first trees at Piper Mountain, 50 years ago.

"The real Christmas tree had about 95 percent of the Christmas tree market in this country, and it was about 35 million trees," Corliss says.

These days, between 20 and 30 million such trees are sold each year, which at first might look like only a modest dip in sales, but that figure doesn't take into account the population growth that happened when the the baby boom generation started having its own kids.

As the country's population surged, Corliss says the unorganized tree industry seemed unaware that retailers were busy marketing the ease and convenience of artificial trees to busy families.

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A customer picks a Christmas tree in Freeport, Maine.

"As an industry we failed to realize just because we were selling the same number of trees, we were going downhill as far as market share was concerned,” Corliss says. “That trend has continued to the present day, at the rate of one to one-and-a-half percent per year."

But three years ago, tree growers got together and decided to launch an organized marketing effort by signing on with the USDA Agricultural Marketing Program. The program assesses a mandatory fee from each producer of a commodity, and then invests the fee money in research and marketing on the industry's behalf.

You've likely seen some of their work already in campaigns like "the incredible edible egg,” “got milk” and “cotton, the fabric of our lives."

Growers, hopeful that some similar branding push could be done for their industries, came out 70 percent in favor of signing on to the program. So for the last three years, the pilot marketing effort has been in effect, raising about $2 million annually.

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A trailer loaded with hundreds of wrapped Christmas trees heads southbound on Rt. 295 near Yarmouth, Maine

But support now seems to have eroded. This year, a required reassessment vote on whether to continue with the program on a longer term basis garnered just 51 percent in favor, highlighting a divided industry.

One reason behind the dimming enthusiasm, opponents say, is that there's no way to opt out of the program. Anyone in the United States who produces at least 500 Christmas trees for sale — whether they call themselves a tree farmer or not — must pay 15 cents per tree to the program.

"I mean 10,000 trees, you're looking at $1500. So yeah. It definitely eats into the margin," says Tammie Mulvey of Pleasant View Tree Farm in Hodgdon.

Mulvey says that she was initially in favor of the marketing program, but says it's too painful to write a big check at the end of a season, especially when she feels that her rural business has not seen a corresponding benefit.

“They've got some nice videos out there and they've got some advertising stuff going on, and in bigger cities they do more TV ads and things of that sort, but I don't believe — I know there's none running in my area,” she says. “We didn't see any real difference so we voted against it."

Grower Jim Corliss acknowledges that things won't change overnight, but he says he is exasperated by the industry's inability to get together and stick to a plan. He says voluntary participation schemes have failed in the past, and he is frustrated by what he sees as a lack of support from Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Purdue.

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Credit Jennifer Mitchell / Maine Public
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Maine Public
Because of the slim margin of this year's reassessment vote, the department is ordering the Christmas Tree Marketing Board, of which Corliss is a member, to hold a second referendum in the new year.

The industry is being given another chance to decide whether or not to stay with the USDA marketing program. Because of the slim margin of this year's reassessment vote, the department is ordering the Christmas Tree Marketing Board, of which Corliss is a member, to hold a second referendum in the new year.

Corliss asked a USDA official what would have happened if the vote had gone the other way.

"If we had lost by the same whisker, would we get another chance to have another referendum next year? The answer was no,” Corliss says. “I'm still boiling about that."

As in other agriculture sectors, the industry isn't helped by the fact that farmers are aging out of the business. Corliss and his wife, now in their eighties, have just sold Piper Mountain to a couple in their 50s who live out of state and have no experience in tree farming. While Corliss says he fears for the future of tree farms like his, unless the market shrinkage is stopped, he says, there won't be room for the farmers in business now, let alone any new growth.

Originally published 3:28 p.m. December 21, 2018