'Panic Buying' Of Christmas Trees Hits NC Amid Tree Shortage
A cold drizzle fell on Boyd's Christmas Trees, but the holiday spirit hummed along apace at the Swannanoa River Road tree lot, where Rhonda Heath said she's had the best season in more than a decade.
"With COVID being on this year, I've had customers tell me they wanted something happy in the house," she said. "They want something pretty to look at, and some that usually do artificial, this year they wanted a live tree."
Not only that, but they wanted to go big.
But undersupply, a lingering effect of the recession, has bumped up against that demand, driving customers to travel long distances to snag a tree where they could, including from the tiny lot across from the Asheville Municipal Golf Course, industry experts say.
Customers who drove from Tennessee told Heath everything closer to home was too scraggly, expensive, or both — if they could find anything at all.
She sees cars with tags from all over the Southeast pull into her lot, loaded with customers who snap up multiple trees.
"It's just been unreal, how everybody's so excited to get a tree," she said.
Some Christmas consumers this year are finding tree lots and farms sold out of the biggest trees early, with some closing early due to lack of inventory.
That was the case with JoAnn Yoder, president of Brumit Restaurant Group, who went searching for a tree on Nov. 30 with her husband, Keith Yoder, and their daughter.
The Yoders usually buy from Boyd Mountain Christmas Tree Farm, a Maggie Valley choose-and-cut operation unrelated to Boyd's Christmas Trees in Asheville.
Boyd Mountain, however, closed to customers at 5 p.m. Nov. 29 for lack of inventory, though their retail lot remained open as of Dec. 10.
The Yoders searched far and wide for the 10-12 foot tree they wanted and finally found the perfect tree: a 12-foot-4 specimen. They were lucky, they were told, with so many "panic buying" trees this year.
One tree lot owner told the Yoders he'd never seen anything like it.
"He compared it to the rush on paper towels and toilet paper," Keith Yoder said. "There was a mass of people coming in with trailers."
Whether they were buying for family or wanted an extra helping of Christmas this year was anyone's guess.
"I sent out a group text to all the people I work with — all men — and they said, 'Our house looks like a Christmas wonderland,'" JoAnn Yoder said.
FEWER TREES TO GO AROUND
The rush on Christmas trees this year has highlighted an industry reality: There are simply fewer trees to go around, particularly mature-growth specimens.
Christmas trees are a particularly slow-growing crop, taking 7-10 years on average to develop from seedlings to harvestable size. Once planting is completed in any given season, the future number of trees is fixed.
The trees now coming into harvestable height were those planted during the recession in 2007-08. The problem is, at that time, some growers either got out of the business or found economic conditions unfavorable for planting a large harvest.
Now a dozen and change years later, a pandemic has driven an unfathomable — and unpredictable — demand for holiday cheer.
The Cadillac of evergreens, the Fraser fir, is a specialty of the Appalachian high country, and local choose-and-cut farms — or those where families can pick and fell their own trees — have been mobbed.
Jennifer Greene, executive director of the North Carolina Christmas Tree Association, has an office in Boone and hails from Blowing Rock.
"I live in Fraser fir country," she said. "I get to see firsthand all the people who come for choose-and-cut, and all the trees they take away. A lot of times you see cars with multiple trees on them."
Media accounts of tree shortages may have spurred some panic buying, industry experts, including Greene, say. But there may be a bit more to the story.
"I think people want some joy and a bright spot, a light at the end of the tunnel," Greene said. "It's been a rough year for everyone, and Christmas is a happy time. They're wanting to get that earlier and make it last longer in such a gloomy year."
North Carolina is the second-largest Christmas tree-producing state in the nation, harvesting approximately 4.1 million Christmas trees annually, 96% of which are Fraser firs, which grow only at elevations over 3,000 feet.
Choose-and-cut operations generally see their biggest sales the weekend following Thanksgiving.
Greene said such farms have seen record sales this year over last, and earlier than usual. Tree buyers, also, are apparently getting younger and younger.
"Millennials are embracing real Christmas trees," Greene said. "They are about the experience, the story and meaning, and they're willing to go the extra mile if the product has meaning."
'EARLY BIRD GETS THE WORM'
Darren Nicholson, head of marketing for Boyd Mountain Christmas Tree Farm, spoke Dec. 9 over the phone from South Carolina. He was already on vacation.
"We got slammed pretty hard," he said, laughing.
He said 1,250 families visited the farm on Black Friday, with 100 employees handling the rush, 12 of them just to help park cars.
Nicholson said the farm has sold out early the past three years.
"But this year, we did 5,300 choose-and-cut trees in about nine days," he said.
The Christmas tree shortage is not only real, but won't go away any time soon, he added.
"Because of the economy crashing in 2008, a lot of older farmers were getting out of the business because sales were down, and with no one new getting into it, about 2018 we really started feeling the effects," Nicholson said.
Since Christmas trees grow only a foot a year, he said, it takes about a decade to start seeing real money.
"No one new is getting into a business to lose money for 10 years," Nicholson said.
Customers looking for the pick of the grove should head out to find a tree a week or two before Thanksgiving next year, he said.
"That's if you want the best ones and the biggest variety," he said, adding that he expects the tight supply of Christmas trees to last up to four more years. "The early bird gets the worm."
If the early buying time sounds extreme, Nicholson said fresh-cut trees have a long shelf life. A tree cut in November could potentially last far past Christmas, even into February.
"You don't even have to put it up before Thanksgiving," he added. "Just put it in a shady place and put it in a bucket of water."
A YEAR WHERE EVERY TREE FINDS A HOME
For now, what tree lots remain open should have a sparse supply, particularly of larger trees.
At the WNC Farmers Market manager Doug Sutton said at least half the tree vendors at the open-air market have closed shop by Dec. 7.
"The growers that are here have had a good season, and it's been a blessing, that's for sure," he said.
The days of shopping around for better deals might be over, he said.
"Don't wait 'til Dec. 24 if you want a tree," Sutton said. "You'll need to get it pretty quick."
But there's good news, said executive director of the National Christmas Tree Association Tim O'Connor.
Unlike the rush on toilet paper and cleaning products in early 2020, he's not heard of a consumer who wanted a tree coming up short.
The same can't be said for wholesale tree buyers who, if they don't have a strong relationship with tree farms, might be left twisting in the wind.
"What's happened, in our view, is that wholesale buyers have been super aggressive, determined to buy trees," O'Connor said. "There are less trees available, no question, but it's not a consumer shortage by any means."
He said wholesalers haven't adapted well to the tighter supply. Without big down payments and contracts with farms and other wholesalers, retailers might have a hard time securing enough inventory to make it to Christmas, O'Connor said.
It's also possible big box stores, with their deep pockets, have crowded out smaller buyers, he said.
Home Depot in East Asheville had an abundance of trees as of Dec. 7, said garden center worker Aly Thompson.
Thompson, who just started working at the store, has no yardstick by which to measure this year's fervor. But her supervisor said the rush is real.
"He said it's been absolutely insane this year," she said.
O'Connor bets even the most scraggly of Charlie Brown Christmas trees will find a home this Christmas.
"I think this is a year where we sell every tree," he said. "And I do think it's a year where choose-and-cut growers have never seen as many customers as they're seeing this year."
A GOOD PROBLEM TO HAVE
At Frosty Mountain Christmas Trees near the Tennessee-North Carolina border, Donna Jones and her husband, Chipper Jones, grow Fraser firs, and this year's sales have been as brisk as the weather.
This run on large trees was unparalleled, with 8-12 foot trees selling the fastest. The farm ended tree sales on Dec. 6 instead of the usual week before Christmas.
"The very last tree I sold yesterday was just huge," Jones said. "It was almost as wide as it was tall."
Growing Christmas trees is rewarding but slow work, said Jones, who said it takes a dozen years to get a tree from seed to 7 feet. That's in part because of the yearly shearing that creates that classic Christmas tree shape.
With fewer trees planted during the recession and some farmers having turned away from the business, trees from farms like Frosty Mountain are in high demand.
It's a good problem to have, even if this year was particularly frantic.
Neighbors, family, and even employees from a Tennessee rafting company pulled together to help Frosty Mountain get through the rush.
The Health Department and the North Carolina Cooperative Extension helped the farm adapt to COVID with plexiglass panels and hand sanitizer stations.
As soon as the season began, customers flooded in from Myrtle Beach, Florida, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia.
But rather than an unruly mob, Jones found a pervasive Christmas spirit, which not even a slushy, muddy snowmelt could dampen.
"There was so much Christmas spirit abounding (this year), and I love that," she said. "People were just so happy to do something with their families outside — something sort of normal."
Western North Carolina is already an outdoor playground for the Southeast. COVID-19 has not dampened that drive for outdoor activity.
Greene, who has lived in Watauga County for 41 years, saw more tourists flowing through the region than she had ever seen.
"My first thought was that choose-and-cut is going to be off the chain," she said. "People are looking to get out and have something to do."
Like hiking, Christmas tree farms provide a reasonably pandemic-safe activity, particularly as farms such as Frosty Mountain take extra precautions.
The annual act of hunting for Christmas trees apparently has new urgency, one that extends beyond the border of North Carolina.
While Greene was in Washington, D.C., checking out dozens of Christmas trees at the White House — all North Carolina Fraser firs — she missed a call for an interview from Good Morning America.
"Their story was about the Christmas tree craze," Greene said.