By JULIET WANG
Capital News Service
LANSING—Sales of Michigan-grown Christmas trees have stayed strong even with the struggling economy and competition with artificial trees.
Michigan is the third-largest producer of Christmas trees in the U.S., behind Oregon and North Carolina, according to the Michigan Christmas Tree Association (MCTA).
The top six producing counties are Allegan, Manistee, Missaukee, Montcalm, Oceana and Wexford, according to the Department of Agriculture.
There are an estimated 600 farms in Michigan that grow Christmas trees, according to Marsha Gray, executive director of MCTA.
Christmas trees are a specialty crop and have a large impact on the agriculture industry according to Ken Nye, a commodity specialist for Michigan Farm Bureau.
Revenue from the annual crop of more than 3 million trees in the state is estimated at around $45 million, with $1.3 million from cut greens like wreaths and garlands, according to MCTA.
Russ Godfrey, owner of Morning Star Evergreens in Ossineka, said he hasn’t noticed a decline in sales.
“We’ve actually been very stable for the last three years even with the economy and maybe increased slightly,” said Godfrey. “We gained customers and probably lost some.”
Cathy Genovese of Candy Cane Christmas Tree Farm in Oxford, which was started in 1977, said she notices a correlation between sales and the economy.
“There’s a lot of auto and auto-related employment around here, so some people may not put up a tree if they’re struggling with the economy,” said Genovese, who owns the family-run farm. “It’s a major concern because sales are economy-driven.”
Genovese labels her operation more of a specialty Christmas tree farm, and it draws many customers from the northern suburbs of Detroit.
“We’ve seen sales go up and down. Last year it was up a little from the previous year,” Genovese said.
Marsha Gray of MCTA and Nye acknowledge the challenges faced by Christmas tree farms.
“Our growers are under tremendous economic pressures. The fertilizer prices are high, fuel is expensive, and so is labor and energy,” said Gray. “Tree prices have been flat for 15 years. Some have shown a small increase, but on average it has been very flat.”
Nye said, “There is no question the cost of producing Christmas trees has gone up quite a bit compared to the past. It’s a labor-intensive industry and labor cost is high.”
Godfrey said,“We’ve been pretty stable in our pricing over the five-year period. Three to four years ago we increased the prices slightly.
We have a choose-and-cut operation and we provide a service, an experience of coming out and getting a tree,” said Godfrey. “If people want that experience, they will continue and some people are just not willing to sacrifice that tradition.”
Gray said Michigan has two types of farms. One is choose-and-cut and the other one is large wholesale farms operations that harvest trees for weeks and ship them out.
“Two-thirds to three-fourths of those wholesale trees leave the state. They bring money into Michigan,” she said. “The biggest markets are Chicago, Texas and Florida.”
Nye is concerned with the misconception of artificial trees as environmentally friendly.
“The real competition is the competition with artificial Christmas trees,” Nye said.
“It’s bad for the environment if the Christmas tree is not sold as the tree was intended to,” said Nye. “Natural Christmas trees are environmentally healthy and do not use oil to produce, unlike artificial trees.”
In addition, many consumers are interested in buying a less expensive tree.
“The economic pressures impacted the prices which consumers want to pay, but not the number of trees sold,” said Gray.
Michigan produces more than a dozen varieties according, to the Department of Agriculture.
Gray said most Christmas tree farms grow five to eight species, depending on the soil and weather conditions.
“Certain family traditions, holiday traditions and the variety of trees help keep the market strong,” said Gray.
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.