By Jesse Wood
Nov. 27, 2013. Last weekend, vehicles lined Wards Branch Road off of U.S. 321 in Western Watauga as families hiked up the hillside of a nearby farm with a saw in tow to cut down a Christmas tree for the holidays.
Unlike other choose-and-cut Christmas tree operations, this farm didn’t have the experiential amenities such as the apple cider, hayrides, animal farms and holiday craft shops. These trees also didn’t cost any money.
Wendle Capps, the owner of the property, said the trees, which area almost too large for small living rooms, were there when he purchased the land. He mentioned that the previous owner had trouble selling the trees and even went as far as burning them to dispose of the evergreens.
Now, Capps is just trying to give away as many as he can to clear the land.
Capps said that in the past weekend, he was surprised at how many people stopped to cut down a tree. Also, he recounted one tale of a man who Capps figured owned a Christmas tree lot down the road. This person expressed anger at Capps for giving away the trees.
“What was funny is he turned right around and cut three down himself,” Capps said.
The Wholesale Glut
While the traditional choose-and-cut operations are “going great” with steady or increased sales, the wholesale industry is facing a glut of Christmas trees that is driving down the cost of commercial trees, Watauga County Extension Director Jim Hamilton said recently.
Hamilton mentioned that new wholesale growers targeting the big box stores each put nearly a million trees in the ground before the Great Recession. Those trees are now coming of age.
Hamilton said that this “grower-induced” glut has caused smaller and midsize growers to behave like Amazon, the online retailer, and sell trees for lower than cost just to get rid of the product.
In early 2000, Hamilton said that the average six-foot tree – cut, bailed, shipped – sold for between $22 to 26 dollars.
“That is now $14 to $16,” Hamilton said. “I have even heard fields of trees going for a dollar or even 50 cents. That’s somebody cutting and bailing and shipping.”
Hamilton used phrases like “the race to the bottom” and “cutting their own throat” to describe what is happening in the wholesale industry. Hamilton said that companies are competing for the big contracts with the box stores and mentioned that the company that loses out on the contract one year comes back the following year with more trees at a lower price.
“The oversupply is not getting better,” Hamilton said. “The growers are competing in a race to the bottom, and in some respects, they are cutting their own throat.”
Listening to Hamilton and others involved talk about the Christmas tree industry, it sounds like in the future only a handful of gigantic tree farms that sell hundreds of thousands of trees to the big box stores like Lowe’s Home Improvement will exist – along with the experiential choose-and-cut operations.
The in-between industry, which is already fading away, will likely disappear. The farmers used to selling 10,000 Christmas trees on street corners, to landscape centers and bigger suppliers are having trouble marketing and selling their product.
Planting With A Plan
Jack Wiseman, of Christmas Greens in Newland, entered the Christmas tree industry in 1962, selling the beloved Fraser fir, which is only native to Southern Appalachia, before many people in the world had even heard of the tree.
It wasn’t until 26 years ago that the big box stores started selling Christmas trees, and Wiseman called this a “gift” to the Christmas tree grower because those stores opened up a whole new market to the growers and were adept at marketing and selling a high-volume of trees for a lower price.
Wiseman said the growers who didn’t do their homework and those who didn’t have buyer-seller relationships cultivated over many years are the ones who are struggling mightily.
“They have created their own struggle. They planted without preparing for a market,” Wiseman said. “Those hoping to take someone else’s market created this debacle.”
Wiseman agreed with Hamilton’s assessment about a glut of Christmas trees existing because of the area being planted “faster than the market could sustain over the last 12 or so years.”
Wiseman mentioned that people with “pie-in-the-sky vision” contributed to this glut and the squeezing of the smaller growers out of the picture. He mentioned that smaller growers without a market only have a few options: burn their trees (using possibly a federal program that pays growers $3 to burn trees that can’t be sold); let them stand, catch diseases and grow into a jungle; or haul their trees long distances to sell them on corner lots in small-town America.
(Wiseman said the market that exists for small growers is for those who grow 1,000 trees and is willing to load them on a truck, drive them to Texas, Louisiana and Florida, and sell them on corner lots. That’s about it.)
As Wiseman’s market grew decades ago, he grew more trees. It wasn’t the other way around like some of these other newer growers causing the excess. Back when he started in 1962, Wiseman didn’t have a market, so he created one.
“We are still selling to the same customers we created,” Wiseman said.
Wiseman compared the future of the Christmas tree to the retail industry. Fifty years ago, thousands of small retailers existed selling everything from silverware to shoestrings. Now, a handful of big retailers dominate the market.
“The big retailers have taken over the market just like the future of growers. There will only be a dozen in the next 25 to 30 years,” Wiseman predicted.
Noting the hard work, volatility of the market, labor and pest problems, Wiseman said he wouldn’t recommend that his several grandchildren start their own Christmas tree operation.
“There’s too many negatives and uncertainty,” Wiseman said. “When there are already too many trees available, you’d have to be pretty dumb to plant more.”
‘The Mountain Experience’ of Choose-and-Cut
As for the choose-and-cut farms, one thing that continues to drive growth is the experiential, cultural activity.
While there has been a little bit more competition from people who used to wholesale trees and decided to “just throw up a choose-and-cut sign” without the cultural, experiential amenities, Hamilton said those that have been doing it for a while, have built a base of return customers and offer the amenities are the most successful.
He also added that the growers are also more connected to the Internet, which is driving growth, too. He mentioned 10 years ago only five of the growers had websites. Now, 90 percent do. He also mentioned that the marketing of choose-and-cut farms in Watauga County, which the Cooperative Extension works in proximity, is becoming concentrated on the web. Because people are looking on the Internet to find a choose-and-cut farm, the production of brochures and maps of the farms have been slashed from 25,000 last year to only 7,500 this year, Hamilton said.
Now as for Wiseman, who also operates a choose-and-cut operation, he agrees with Hamilton that the choose-and-cut farms are doing well. Wiseman also offers all the amenities – hayrides, apple cider, cookies and other comforts to make the children happy – and sees families return year after year.
“We give them a nice mountain experience,” Wiseman said. “Yes, they do. [They leave happy.]”