Fewer trees for Grinch to steal

Oregon and Washington Christmas tree sellers say this holiday season will see fewer noble firs, Douglas firs, grand firs and other popular species.

By Troy Brynelson

The Columbian

VANCOUVER — There’s a thinner crop of Christmas trees this year, which could be good or bad depending on who’s holding the axe.

Oregon and Washington Christmas tree sellers say this holiday season will see fewer noble firs, Douglas firs, grand firs and other popular species. A recent oversupply sunk prices. Farmers planted fewer trees or closed shop. Now, those remaining say the market is in a giving mood.

“Prices had been really poor for the last six or eight years,” said Mark Schmidlin, owner of Schmidlin Farms in Banks, Ore., and a board member of the Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association. “There’s a lot of demand right now for the trees that are there.”

Licensed Christmas tree growers in Oregon, the largest producer in the country, have dropped from 668 in 2011 to 437 in 2016, according to the Oregon Department of Agriculture. There are close to 90 in Washington, according to the Washington Department of Agriculture.

“If you shop early, you will find your Christmas tree,” said Schmidlin. “There will be enough to go around. If there are fewer lots, go out to a choose-and-cut (farm).”

Wholesalers and tree lot operators say they are seeing higher prices that could get passed to buyers.

Beau Leech, owner of Bo’s Trees on the corner of Northeast 78th Street and Highway 99, said he saw the price spike coming. After 26 years in the Christmas tree industry, he said he’s waded through this supply cycle three times.

“That’s why we grew a bunch of trees,” he said in a phone interview from his headquarters in Springfield, Ore. “Right now if you wanted to go out and buy noble firs on wholesale — they’re very, very hard to come by.”

Prices for Christmas trees aren’t tracked by the Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association or the states’ agriculture departments. At Bo’s Trees prices start at $35 and, depending on size, could fetch $200. Even though prices may have risen, Leech said he hasn’t heard complaints.

“If our prices have gone up… people just aren’t griping,” he said. “An educated buyer will pay what something’s worth. If they know how much work goes into the trees, they understand.”

Operators of U-cut farms say their prices haven’t changed much yet, but shortages could impact them later. Ron Chase, whose Snow Angel Tree Farm is in Brush Prairie, said he drove to Oregon in April and stood in line to buy saplings from a large farm, who ran out during his wait.

“We wanted 1,000 trees and we couldn’t get ‘em,” said Chase. “It takes about eight years to grow a noble. It means we’re going to be short for awhile.”

Shoppers on Friday seemed unaffected. The prices were favorable, they said, even if farms seem thin.

“I was wondering what was going on,” Kandee Lydie said of the crop at Glenwood Tree Farm in Brush Prairie, where she bought a noble fir. “We’ve been here many times before so it seemed weird.”

What do short supplies and rising prices mean for the future?

“I already had an answer ready,” said Schmidlin. “Farmers are notorious for chasing higher prices. When prices go up, more trees will get planted. When prices go down, less trees get planted. It’s just a cycle.”