Why Do Christmas Trees Cost More This Year?

There are fewer tree farms these days, and some were hit by severe weather. Plus, both real and fake trees have been affected by higher shipping costs.

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Along with much else on the holiday shopping list, Christmas trees, both real and fake, are more expensive this year.

Prices for live cut trees have been creeping up and will run 5 to 10 percent higher, on average, than last year, said Doug Hundley, a seasonal spokesman for the National Christmas Tree Association, a trade group for tree growers.

But fears of mass tree shortages are unwarranted, said Marsha Gray, executive director of the Christmas Tree Promotion Board, a marketing and research group funded by growers and overseen by the Agriculture Department.

“We do have a tighter supply than we’ve had in the past,” she said, but “we haven’t run out of trees.”

Higher prices for live trees, she said, are a result of long-term industry trends combined with short-term factors, including higher costs for fuel, trucking and labor and severe weather in some growing regions. A summer heat wave affected tree growers in parts of the Pacific Northwest, while flooding in British Columbia has affected imports from Canada.

Twenty years ago, the market was oversupplied and tree prices were low, Ms. Gray said. It was difficult for farmers to turn a profit on a crop that can take eight to 10 years to mature, and many growers left the business, particularly after the 2008 financial crisis.

“We saw an exodus,” she said.

The number of Christmas tree farms declined to about 15,000 in 2017 from roughly 22,000 in 2002, according to census data from the Agriculture Department. Over the same 15 years, the number of trees harvested fell to 15.1 million from 20.8 million.

Also eating into sales of live trees has been the convenience of increasingly realistic fake trees, which come without the nuisance of shedding needles and often have built-in lights. “We know we’ve been losing a lot of customers to artificial trees,” Mr. Hundley said.

Demand for cut trees, however, has been rising in recent years, including during the pandemic. It may be, Mr. Hundley said, that people cooped up inside want a link to the outdoors and appreciate a fragrant natural tree.

Efforts by the promotion board to talk up live trees may also have helped. A 2020 report by a consultant found that along with economic growth, a board marketing program probably had a “substantial impact” on a rise in demand for cut Christmas trees from 2016 to 2019. The campaign casts selecting a live tree as a fun way to create family memories. The slogan: “It’s Christmas. Get Real.”

Christmas trees are grown across the country, but production is concentrated in North Carolina, Oregon, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Washington.

Ms. Gray said shoppers would be wise to buy their live tree by mid-December rather than waiting until the days just before the holiday, when supplies may dwindle. “Don’t wait until Dec. 19,” she said.

Buyers may also end up with a different size or species of tree from what they chose in the past. “Be flexible,” Ms. Gray said.

Prices vary by geography and the size of the tree. The median price for a live cut tree in 2019 was about $77, according to association survey data. It’s hard to say what the typical price is now, but “prices aren’t going to go down,” Ms. Gray said. If prices are steep at one retailer, she advised, “shop around.”

Harold DeLucia, owner of NYC Trees, said he had been able to get just 70 percent of his supply of Fraser firs, a popular holiday tree, from his supplier in North Carolina. He got the remaining 30 percent from other suppliers offering balsam firs. He has allotted the Frasers to his online customers, he said, and will sell mostly balsams at a lot in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan. (Prices start at $139 for a package including a four-foot tree, delivered and installed, with a stand and a tree skirt; the walk-up price is $70 for just the tree.)

Shoppers considering fake trees may find that bargains are scarce as well. Retail prices for artificial trees may be as much as 25 percent higher than last year because of supply chain disruptions, said Mac Harman, chief executive of Balsam Brands, a seller of high-end artificial trees, and of the American Christmas Tree Association, a nonprofit trade group focused on artificial trees.

Most artificial trees are imported and so are affected by slower shipping times and higher costs because of the pandemic, he said. “Supply is flat, but demand is up.”

The average price of an artificial tree last year was $104, according to Mr. Harman’s association. Fancier models, however, can cost more than $1,000. Typically, he said, retailers sell artificial trees at a discount to the price listed on the box, but shoppers can expect fewer reductions this year.

“You’re seeing a significant price increase, or a lesser discount,” Mr. Harman said. While you may pay more initially, an artificial tree can last for decades, he said.

Here are some questions and answers about Christmas trees:

How can I find a live tree seller near me?

The Christmas Tree Promotion Board offers an online retail search tool, as does the National Christmas Tree Association.

If I buy my cut tree early, how can I preserve it?

If you want to buy a tree early but don’t want to decorate it right away, take a few steps to store it properly, said Mr. Hundley of the National Christmas Tree Association. Have the seller cut off about an inch of the trunk and stand the tree in a bucket of water. The tree will draw the water into its trunk, preventing it from drying out. You can store the tree in a cool place, like an unheated garage or even outdoors — just avoid direct sunlight, which can dry out the tree.

When you’re ready to set up and decorate the tree, avoid locations near heat vents or fireplaces to keep the tree fresher and reduce fire hazards. And keep the base filled with water.

When the season is over, many communities offer recycling programs that turn Christmas trees into mulch. Or you can get creative. One idea: Set it up outside, decorated with peanut-butter-coated pine cones to feed backyard birds.

What tree lights are easiest on my electric bill?

LED lights are the most energy efficient, cost-effective option for holiday lighting, according to the Edison Electric Institute. The Wirecutter, The New York Times’s product-rating affiliate, offers recommendations for the best brands.

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