Dec 19, 2017

For Texas Christmas Tree Growers, It’s the Customer Experience That Counts

Reporting Texas

People shop for a Christmas tree at the Evergreen Christmas Tree farm in Elgin. Texas farmers grow varieties that can handle hot weather. Shelby Light/Reporting Texas

The relatively tiny Texas Christmas tree market has seized on “agritainment” to boost choose-and-cut sales to millennials, as it fights the continuing shift to artificial trees.

Farms are using activities and entertainment such as hay rides, food, markets and performances to entice people to make a trip out to rural tree farms. Growers believe the so-called agritainment adds to the experience of visiting a farm.

“The bottom line for us is we like to have families come out and have fun and choose and cut their own trees,” said Joe McCullough, executive director of Texas Christmas Tree Growers Association. “Once people know what you have to offer, the families come back, year after year.”

This year, tree growers in the northern U.S. are experiencing a very tight market, driving up prices, but Texas Christmas tree growers have a plentiful supply.

Most of America’s Christmas trees are grown in northern states still feeling the effects of the recession in 2008, when tight family budgets meant fewer trees were sold, said Doug Hundley, spokesman for the National Christmas Tree Association. Farmers couldn’t plant seedlings, setting them up for a short supply in the future.

“Yeah, they’re going to cost a little more, but it’s not the end of the world,” said Jim Wilson, co-owner of Mainstay Farm in Cleburne. He and his wife, Marianna, have been growing Christmas trees for almost 30 years.

Only people who want to buy a tall tree from northern states will notice the price increase. Depending on their size, Noble and Fraser firs can take eight to 13 years to grow. Eight foot and taller Noble and Fraser firs will be the most expensive this year.

Texas Christmas trees can range from $48 to $80 for an 8-footer, depending on the farm and the species. At Mainstay Farm, all trees, including imports, range from $88 to $108, depending on their grade. A $108 tree is perfect all around. At Lowe’s, a 7- to 8-foot Fraser fir is $50, but the price jumps to $100 for a 9- to 10-foot tree. Other farms around the state charge from $6 to $10 per foot for locally grown trees.

Texas farmers can grow only a few varieties of Christmas trees, and those trees take five to six years to reach a 7- to 8-foot height. Noble and Fraser firs can’t survive in the Lone Star State because it’s too hot.

“For Texas trees, a ‘price increase’ is a false statement,” Jim Wilson said.

Every five years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture conducts a Census of Agriculture. According to the 2012 census, Texas harvested more than 38,000 Christmas trees. That’s a fraction of the number of trees grown in the top three states — Oregon, North Carolina and Michigan — which grow and export millions of Christmas trees every year.

Texas is far down on the list of producers, but growers here are focusing on families. It’s all part of the National Promotion Board’s effort to “Keep It Real.”

In an effort to get real trees back into homes, growers across the country formed the promotion board to advertise the benefits of fresh Christmas trees — buying them supports local farmers, they are more environmentally friendly than artificial trees, and the hunt for the perfect tree is a fun family experience.

Last year, according to a survey conducted by Nielsen for the American Christmas Tree Association, 81 percent of homes displayed an artificial tree. Also in 2016, consumers purchased 18.6 million artificial trees, according to consumer surveys commissioned by the National Christmas Tree Association, which represents hundreds of growers.

Growers across the country are fighting the convenience of an artificial tree with the experience of finding the perfect real tree.

“Our goal is to make sure you choose a real tree over a plastic formation,” said Marianna Wilson, president of the Texas Christmas Tree Growers Association, “and that we make it such a memorable experience that you would never go back to that plastic formation.”

Nationwide, 23 percent of families who buy real Christmas trees went to a farm to choose and cut their own tree, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.

Millennials are very interested in cutting their own trees, Marianna Wilson said. She and her husband offer markets, mazes, rides and food options for families at their farm, Mainstay. The farm’s last scheduled selling weekend was Dec. 9 and 10.

In Elgin, the Walterscheidt family offers games, tractor rides, and the enjoyment of visiting a real farm and being able to pet the resident donkeys. They sell 1,500 to 2,000 trees every year, and also have closed for the season. Beth Walterscheidt, co-owner of the farm, serves on the National Promotion Board.

At Evergreen Farms, she and her family have been growing trees for more than 20 years. Virginia pines and Leyland cypress trees are available. The Walterscheidts also sells Noble and Fraser firs from Washington state and North Carolina at their farm.

Despite a rise in the price of some Christmas trees, farmers are still urging people to purchase a real tree instead of an artificial one. Fake trees, made of plastic and metal, are more harmful to the environment and may never biodegrade, said Hundley. Real Christmas trees are sustainable and environmentally friendly, he said.

“Trees aren’t taken from the woods, but grown on farms, so when a family buys a real tree, they are supporting American farmers,” Hundley said.

Christmas tree farmers such as the Wilsons want families to come out to the farm to choose and cut their own Christmas tree, but purchasing a tree from a lot is the next best thing, Jim Wilson said. They hope consumers never go back to artificial trees.

“If people go to a lot because they just want to quickly grab a tree, we are just happy they are buying a real tree.”