Christmas tree growers feel ‘Grinch-ed’ by tax stories

December 2, 2011

Agriculture

Mississippi’s Christmas tree growers are optimistic about this year’s sales season despite national reports of a new “tree tax” to fund promotional efforts.

Growers now hope consumers visit their operations and see prices are generally the same as last year.

“Here we are trying to self-promote our industry, and we get this,” said Michael May, owner of the Lazy Acres Plantation near Chunky and executive secretary of the Southern Christmas Tree Association. “Sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying.”

Earlier this month, national media picked up a story that U.S. Christmas tree growers were attempting to add a “tree tax” to fund a promotion and research program, sometimes referred to as a “check off.”

The “Proposed Christmas Tree Promotion, Research and Information Order” was published in the Nov. 8, 2010, issue of the “Federal Register.” The proposed initial assessment would be 15 cents per tree sold or imported into the U.S. Those operations that produce or import fewer than 500 trees per year could apply for and receive an exemption. A board of 12 Christmas tree producers, nominated by the industry, would direct the funds.

The initial public comment phase was scheduled to end Feb. 7, but was extended to March 8. Growers were hoping to have approval before this sales season so they would have funds for the 2012 season.

But, they are still waiting.

Media outlets began reporting that growers were asking for a new “tax,” hoping to get marketing and research funds from consumers. Some talk show hosts, bloggers and others, especially those on the right, decried the proposal, some going as far as accusing the Obama Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture of striking a sweetheart deal with growers at the expense of U.S. consumers even though the industry was already working on the check off before President Obama came to office.

The Christmas tree industry maintained that it would not pass on the cost of the program to consumers.

But, the Obama Administration reversed its pro-program stance, and the USDA delayed its decision on the program.

Growers are perplexed. The beef and egg industries have implemented similar check off programs.

“How is this any different?” asked May. “I didn’t raise prices last year, and I haven’t raised them this year.

“This is not a tax. It’s self-promotion funded by the industry. And, that’s all it is.”

While questions linger as to whether or not the industry would ever get its proposed check off, Mississippi growers are optimistic about the upcoming season.

According to MSU Extension, Mississippi tree prices are $35 to $45 each for six- to eight-foot trees and $50 to $75 each for larger trees up to 10 feet.

It takes approximately four years for a tree to mature. Thus, growers harvest about a fourth of their crop every year. At an average of 900 trees per acre bringing a median price of $40, growers can expect to gross approximately $36,000 per acre every four years.

There is no hard figure for the value of Mississippi’s Christmas tree industry. May estimated growers see about $1 million to $2 million in sales annually.

It is a labor-intensive industry, but one that offers more satisfaction to growers than just revenue, according to Mike Marolt, owner of Pine Mountain Tree Farm in Corinth.

“The kids look forward to picking out a tree,” Marolt said. “There’s just an excitement about going out and getting a tree each year, and you don’t get that excitement if it sits in the closet all year long.

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