Drought pushed Christmas tree prices up this year and could lead to shorter supplies in the future
For the past 45 years, John Knight has grown and sold Christmas trees to families on his central Oklahoma farm. He first became interested in starting his own evergreen tree farm when he read about a farmer in Mexico growing Christmas trees in a dry-weather region.
“I love a challenge, and I was up for it,” Knight said. “It is definitely a challenge to grow something where they’re not designed to grow.”
Although Knight maintains about 40,000 trees on his 85-acre farm, the severe drought has taken a toll on his seedlings since late 2020. Drought killed nearly half of his newly planted trees last year and a quarter of his trees so far this year.
“Everything was peaches and cream up until two years ago,” Knight said. “It’s been agonizing ever since.”
With more than half of the U.S. experiencing drought, Christmas tree crops are dying at an unusually high rate.
“The biggest issue with drought years are seedlings that are planted in those years,” said Kansas Forestor David Bruton. “If the growers don't have supplemental water to provide those little seedlings, their survival rate goes down dramatically.”
Since it takes nearly 10 years for a Christmas tree to grow six to eight feet tall, Bruton said natural Christmas tree buyers can expect fewer trees for sale in the future.
He also said Christmas trees are typically drought-hardy once their root systems are established, but the first two to three years of a newly planted tree are the most pivotal. Tree growers who aren’t able to irrigate their seedlings consistently during this time period are more likely to have their seedlings die.
“Once the trees are planted, you’re kind of at the mercy of Mother Nature,” Bruton said, “especially if you’re just letting Mother Nature provide the moisture that’s going to be provided for the year.”
Freshly cut Christmas trees have a higher price tag
Natural Christmas trees will also cost more this holiday season because of the tight supply of farm-grown trees and high production costs.
Drought from previous years has tightened this year’s Christmas tree supply, especially in areas of the Great Plains. But Marsha Gray, executive director of the Real Christmas Tree Board, said even top-producing states are being affected by drought.
“In Oregon, where the number one production area is growing trees on very steep hillsides, irrigation is literally almost an impossibility,” Gray said. “Since that region has experienced more drought recently, they’ve had some losses in seedlings.”
Since it takes trees nearly a decade to grow into marketable ones, Gray said farmers often use some of that time to replace their losses by planting more seedlings. But if drought persists, at some point, they won’t be able to make up that difference.
Christmas tree prices also factor in the hard work it takes to grow and maintain a tree for nearly a decade. Farmers faced higher production costs for fertilizer, fuel, irrigation and labor this year because of inflation. A majority of tree growers said they would likely increase their wholesale prices by 5% to 15% compared to last year, according to a survey by the Real Christmas Tree Board.
“Considering their input costs were significantly higher this year, we're pretty happy that growers were able to hold on to that 5- to 15% range,” Gray said.
As far as retail prices go this year, Gray said it’s difficult to pinpoint since prices vary from farm to farm. According to Fortune, the average price for a real Christmas tree was about $80 in 2020.
But of the fresh Christmas tree customers the Real Christmas Tree Board surveyed, Gray said nearly 80% of them are willing to pay a higher price.
As for Knight, the Christmas tree farmer in central Oklahoma, he said he’s only interested in harvesting a reasonable amount of quality trees for his customers.
“I’m planting (Christmas trees) all the time,” Knight said. “As soon as one seedling dies, I try to get another one back in its place. I don't care, I'm gonna keep growing trees ’til I die.”
Xcaret Nuñez covers agriculture, food systems and rural issues for KOSU and Harvest Public Media and is a Report For America corps member.
This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @HarvestPM
Copyright 2022 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.