People might have to look a little harder — and pay a little more — for that perfect Christmas tree, due to a nationwide shortage this season.

Blame it on the Great Recession. Or the popularity of wine and hazelnuts.

Christmas tree growers were a bit optimistic back in 2000 and planted way too many seedlings, said Mark Arkills, senior production manager for Holiday Tree Farm outside of Salem, which supplies many trees to Southern Oregon.

When the trees were ready for harvest eight years later, their cutting coincided with the tanking of the national economy.

People suddenly put the trees at the bottom of their holiday priority list. Tree prices fell and growers went out of business. Those who survived were hesitant to plant too many trees in the ensuing years. And now that the economy has slowly crept back to a semblance of normal, growers are struggling to fill demand.

“That’s kind of the situation we’re in,” Arkills said. “People weren’t buying as many, fewer got planted, we didn’t have a normal fir seed crop so no one was growing any speculative seedings. … It’s just like every other commodity; it runs in cycles. But ours runs in eight-, 10-, 12-year cycles.”

According to Bill Zander, who owns the Christmas tree lot at the north end of Brookings, some of those tree growers converted their crops to hazelnuts and grapes for wine.

“Right now, that’s what’s hot,” he said. “And it’s a steady product. It’s more lucrative to grow hazelnuts and grapes than trees.”

Oregon and North Carolina are the largest purveyors of Christmas trees, last year selling 5.2 million and 3.5 million, respectively, according to the Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association.

It might be years before normal harvest levels catch up — and longer for the popular Noble fir, which take about nine years to grow to a saleable height and that also suffered a poor cone crop until last year.

The shortage — Arkills estimates the supply nationwide to be about 5 to 10 percent below demand — has resulted in price increases of about 10 percent.

“It’s the first time in 10 years we’ve had much of a price increase,” he said. “A lot of it doesn’t have to do with supply, but the cost of labor, fertilizer, land, insurance.”

Zander agreed. He plans to increase his acreage five-fold next year.

“I’ve never seen the price of No. 1 Nobles so high,” he said of the average $45 wholesale cost. “It’s crazy. Even Doug firs are going for $15 wholesale.”

Arkills attributes the success of Holiday Christmas Tree Farm to its 62 years in the industry.

“This is the third oversupply they’ve survived,” he said of the family-owned business. “And one undersupply. I think it’s good planning and financial backing, they’ve been doing this since 1955; they’re definitely in it for the long haul.”

In the past, tree growers tried to fill the demand for Christmas trees with Douglas firs, with limited success.

“There’s still plenty of Doug fir, grand fir, and this newer Nordmann fir,” Arkills said of the Turkish evergreen his company has offered for the past 10 years. “It looks like a Noble, and is starting to come into production, making up for lack of Nobles.”

His company supplies Gold Beach Lumber in Harbor, whose assistant manager, Angela Cook, isn’t worried about having too few trees.

“We have lots of them,” she said, adding that the price has gone up “a little, but nothing horrible,” since last year.

Fake vs real?

Some growers fear a shortage of real trees will nudge holiday revelers toward artificial trees, which in recent years have improved to not only look and feel real, but have lights — and in some cases, ornaments — already affixed to the branches.

Because they are so easy, mess-free and long-lasting, many who switch from real trees to artificial ones might never go back.

Almost 81 million fake trees were put on display last year, compared to 19 million real ones, according to the American Tree Association.

Tags to cut trees on U.S. Forest Service lands are available for $5 at the forest service office on Ellensburg Avenue in Gold Beach, the Chetco Outdoor Store at 16220 Hoffeldt Ave., Harbor, or at the Oregon Department of Forestry offices, 415 Redwood St., Brookings. The two government offices are open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Those seeking a tree in the backcountry are advised to obey all road closures due to mitigation work after the Chetco Bar Fire and only remove trees outside the Sudden Oak Death quarantine area. Maps will be given to all those who purchase a tag.

For more information, contact the forest service at 541-247-3600.

— Reach Jane Stebbins at jstebbins@currypilot.com.

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