The artificial Christmas tree industry is facing challenges this holiday season due to ongoing disruptions in the global supply chain.
Like many decorations and gifts, artificial trees are often imported from China, so port congestion and shipping delays are affecting timing and availability this year. As a result, experts are recommending that Americans order their fake trees as early as possible to ensure delivery in time for holiday festivities.
But what about real Christmas trees? Murmurs of shortages tend to crop up year after year, but is that the case in 2021? And how do the effects of climate change and the current supply chain issues affect our ability to get one of those green centerpieces into our homes?
Below, industry experts share their insights about the 2021 Christmas tree season.
What’s with the rumors about natural tree shortages?
Lately it seems like every year there are headlines or news clips about tree lots selling out ― sparking fears of natural tree shortages around the holiday season. But there might be some misconceptions at play.
“We’ve never run out of Christmas trees in the U.S.,” said Tim O’Connor, executive director of the National Christmas Tree Association. “The supply of trees has become tighter though. Previously growers had planted too many trees, and there weren’t enough buyers to purchase them all, so it was a difficult time in the industry ― everyone was selling their trees at a loss.”
Today, holiday shoppers aren’t seeing the surpluses of the 1990s and 2000s, as many farmers scaled back their operations and started planting fewer trees amid the Great Recession. O’Connor explained that it takes seven to 10 years on average to grow a tree, so we’ve been feeling the effects in recent holiday seasons.
With less excess product, certain tree lots might sell out more quickly, but consumers should still be able to find trees at other locations.
“When we hear about Christmas tree shortages, it’s less about not having enough trees, but more that your tree may not be from the place you want it to be and the type you want it to be,” said James Farmer, an associate professor at Indiana University’s O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs.
“For example, Fraser firs are a popular variety but not native to most places, so they’re challenging to grow and have to be shipped across the U.S. from places where the climate is right,” he added.
“When we hear about Christmas tree shortages, it’s less about not having enough trees, but more that your tree may not be from the place you want it to be and the type you want it to be.”
– James Farmer, associate professor at Indiana University
Both Farmer and O’Connor noted that demand for real trees went up in 2020 when people were pent up at home during the pandemic holiday season and looking to foster a little Christmas cheer.
“Here in Indiana, most of the trees at Christmas tree farms sold out in like two weekends,” Farmer recalled, adding that U-cut options were especially popular. “People were looking for these experiences, being outdoors on a big farm, and it’s socially distanced. We interviewed 25 farmers and all but two had sold out.”
On the wholesale side, demand has also gone up, but supply is similarly limited.
“A lot of buyers of wholesale trees want more than in the past, but they’re having trouble finding them,” O’Connor said. “The growers that grow trees have already sold them or are committed to customers with a history, so that’s part of what fuels the shortage stories lately. In past years, you’d get to mid- to late December, and most people who wanted a tree already had one. But tree lots would still have a couple hundred trees available. Last year that number was greatly reduced, and almost every tree available was sold.”
How does climate change affect the supply?
While the decrease in overall planting is the simplest explanation for lower supply in the Christmas tree industry, the other big factor that tends to arise in these conversations is climate change. Environmental factors like droughts and rising temperatures can decrease the amount of viable trees on a farm.
“Here in the Midwest in Indiana about nine years ago, we had a severe drought, and a lot of trees died, so many U-cut tree farms have missing stock from that time period,” Farmer explained. “This summer, there was all the news about Christmas tree farms in the Pacific Northwest. They’re having some of the hottest temperatures and driest months on record. And the younger the trees are, the more vulnerable they are because they don’t have an established root system.”
O’Connor confirmed that NCTA members who grow Christmas trees reported high temperatures this year, but he emphasized that the situation affected growers in the region differently. As a result, it’s hard to generalize about the impact on the industry as a whole.
“In agriculture, microclimates really matter,” he said. “There are some growers whose microclimate conditions caused that heat to settle in a valley and they did suffer some extensive damage to their trees ― typically not dead but some are damaged to the point that they can’t be sold this year. But just over the hill another grower didn’t have nearly as much bad impact.”
It takes time for Christmas tree farms to pivot since it takes nearly a decade on average for the trees to grow, and certain varieties will only thrive under particular conditions available in specific locations. But farmers are learning to adapt to challenges presented by climate change.
“The seedlings many of our growers planted this spring had a high loss rate, but they’re shifting to fall plantings as a new practice,” O’Connor explained. “What they’re learning is trees that are fall-planted usually get cooler, wetter temperatures and have a better start on growing than the ones planted in the spring ― which was typical ― so it’s a change in cultural norms. They’re also experimenting with other tree varieties that can handle these changing conditions better.”
Will the supply chain disruptions cause problems?
While the current supply chain disruptions involve congested ports and overseas shipping delays, there are also issues with worker shortages and delivery lags within the U.S.
Thus far, O’Connor says he hasn’t seen any major impact on the real Christmas tree industry, which relies on a system of trucks to deliver the firs, spruces and other offerings to lots and customers across the country.
“Certainly it’s possible that on an individual basis, somebody’s Christmas trees may have some difficulty with trucking,” he said. “But in general I haven’t heard from our members that their trucking situation is any different at this point. This is part of their business built in years ago. They have long-standing relationships with the trucks that they use. So if it’s going to be impacted, it’s going to be a bit of a surprise.”
Beyond the deliveries to lots, Christmas tree shopping typically involves in-person transactions, as people often drive to local farms make a selection. If you want your top choice of tree variety and retailer, O’Connor recommends going early in the buying window.
“The season typically starts the day after Thanksgiving, so that Friday is opening day for most farms and lots,” he explained. “Last year, some opened a week before because customers were contacting them about coming early to get a tree. Still, that weekend after Thanksgiving is a good time to buy a tree. That’s about the maximum amount of time you’re able to keep a tree in good shape before Christmas.”