We all know Santa comes from the North Pole, reindeer too, of course. But Christmas trees? Not so much. In fact, turns out that in our part of the world most of them come from North Carolina.
It’s an industry that started just after World War II but has really taken off in the last 20-30 years, turning a tree that’s virtually useless for anything else – the Fraser fir – into pretty much everyone’s picture of an ideal Christmas tree. There are other offerings in the North Carolina crop, like blue spruce and white pine, but the Fraser fir represents 98.6 percent of production (and there’s also a booming trade in wreaths, boughs and evergreen roping).
This year’s harvest will be a little lighter than usual. That’s significant since North Carolina produces 20-25 percent of the nation’s Christmas trees in a given year (only Oregon produces more). That means they won’t be quite as inexpensive as you’ve gotten used to — and that retailers and consumer both should shop early. But growers can expect an above-average return, which has not always been the case.
North Carolina has some 50 million Fraser firs growing on 35,000 acres of land. In a perfect hand-in-glove fit, that land is not suitable for much else but growing Fraser firs.
Together, though, they’re an unbeatable combination
“It’s native only to very small areas of the Southern Appalachians, primarily North Carolina,” says Bill Glenn of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture. “It’s not just a wonderful Christmas tree, it’s our own. If North Carolina has a natural treasure, Fraser fir is one.”
It seems like the perfect lazy man’s crop – toss some seeds out back, wait 12 years, cut and sell. But it doesn’t work like that. By the time a Fraser fir reaches your house it’s been seen by a farmer roughly 100 times.
“You have to control weeds and insects starting when the trees are roughly 3 feet tall, then you have to start shearing them every year – you cut half the growth off every year to get that good shape,” Glenn says. “You have to go out and tag your trees and grade them, they don’t grow all that uniformly, you grade the trees out, tag, them, come in and cut them, bale them, haul them out of the field, store for a short period of time and load on a truck and send them to Florida or Wilmington or Texas.”
Natural cutting of Fraser fir had long been going on, but after World War II growers organized and commercial cultivation began. Since 1959, the North Carolina Christmas Tree Association has been supporting and promoting the industry. “And 70 years later we’re second in the country in Christmas tree production,” Glenn says.
This year, as many as 5 million of us will have Fraser firs in our homes for Christmas. In 2018, the White House will have one – for the 13th time.
In every Christmas tree-producing state, there’s an annual competition to pick the best farm. From those state winners, the National Christmas Tree Association (Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing…) selects an overall winner to provide the Blue Room tree for the following year.
Next year Larry Smith of Mountain Top Fraser Fir in Avery County, NC will present the First Lady with the White House tree.
“They’ve been doing this since the Johnson administration. Since that point North Carolina has won that competition 13 times,” Glenn says. “It’s quite an honor. To have won as many times as we have is a real testament to both our growers and our product.”
After several years of glutted markets, production is down of late and wholesale prices are up.
“They weren’t above the cost of production for several years, which was problematic to say the least. There were too many Christmas trees,” Glenn says. “This year, because there aren’t quite as many on the market, there may be a little price increase on the retail level. From the standpoint of the growers, I’m tickled to death the prices are coming back – you spend 12 years on a tree and sell it for less than you’ve got in it, that’s hard.”
Market adjustments aside, Christmas trees aren’t exactly a tough sell.
“That’s real true,” Glenn agrees. “I don’t want to say Christmas trees are an easy sale, but it’s a lot easier than marketing rutabagas.”