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Tree growers, sellers go on the offensive

Fake or real? Tree debate rages on

For years, a battle has raged during the Christmas season, a battle that’s becoming as endemic to the holidays as bright lights, ornaments, Santa Claus and shopping.

This battle begins on Thanksgiving Day, when people start buying Christmas trees — Douglas firs, Grand firs, Noble firs, Monterey pines, Colorado blue spruces, Scotch pines, Deodora cedars, white firs, Bishop pines or Monterey pines.
Or — and this is where the battle is joined — they buy an artificial tree because these plastic trees don’t shed their needles, don’t start turning brown before Christmas, don’t exacerbate people’s allergies and they can be used year after year.

While some 25 million U.S. households will decorate a natural tree this season, in another 59.7 million homes, artificial trees will be adorned with lights and colored ornaments. The trend toward buying artificial trees has been going on for years.

But now, growers and sellers of natural trees have gone on the offensive.

In the South, for instance, there is a new tree, the Leyland cypress, and, according to Dabbs Tree Farm in Gautier (on the Gulf Coast), the Leyland cypress, “won’t shed needles on your carpet and will outlast any other tree on the market, hands down. Kept in water, it’s not unusual for a Leyland cypress to last two months or more. It’s as pretty as any tree you’ve seen and doesn’t seem to bother most allergy sufferers.”
Robert Eddy Jr. of Eddy’s Christmas Tree Farm in Marion County, says that Leyland trees are becoming, “the backbone of my business.”

Another aspect of the offensive is that more and more Christmas tree growers and sellers are turning to the Internet. Many customers still want the traditional tree-buying experience, but they also want the convenience of Internet shopping, so they research the best place to get a tree before they go out to buy one.

In 2003, the Minnesota Christmas Tree Association had 10,063 visitors to its Web site and 421,841 hits. That’s the same as an electronic Christmas tree store, with 10,063 potential customers walking through the door.

The National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA) is suggesting that Christmas tree farmers send electronic greeting cards to customers and promote an ongoing advertising game.

Also this year, growers are joining with Warner Brothers to offer $3 discounts on purchases of $25 or more if the buyer shows a ticket stub from the movie “The Polar Express.”
Natural trees can be recycled for many uses, including landscaping mulch, according to tree farmers. But artificial trees are eventually dumped into landfills and stay there, as plastic, forever. Many artificial trees are made overseas, as well.

Variety of trees, experiences

The Louisiana-Mississippi Christmas Tree Association (LMCTA) has a Web site where visitors can get a list of Mississippi growers that includes address, directions, phone, e-mail address, Web site, hours open, types of trees sold and other services and related items for sale.

Though Mississippi farms sell a variety of trees, from Carolina Sapphire to Ovensii and Burkii cedar to Blue Ice, all of the farms listed on the LMCTA Web site sell Leyland cypress.
These natural tree dealers offer such services as stands, bottoms, shaking, flocking, wraps, baling (tree wrapping), tours, hayrides, wreaths, garlands and shake houses for children.

DeSoto County’s Merry Christmas Tree Farm also features a Holiday House, which sells home decor, Felton art glass, gifts, crystal eggs and collectibles from around the world. Other farms across the state also offer gift shops, from Thomley’s Santa Forest in Oak Grove (near Hattiesburg) and Smith’s Christmas tree farm in Jones County to Hill Top in Poplarville and Lazy Acres in Chunky (a few miles west of Meridian).

“We try to keep our prices down,” according to Debra Marlot. “And we like it that way because most of our customers are just average folks coming out for a good family outing.” Debra and her husband, Mike, own Pine Mountain Tree Farm outside Corinth.

John Arrechea who, with his wife, Lois, owns Springwood Christmas Tree Farm, just out of Oxford, says, “There’s always a lot of pride when you see a little kid pick out a tree. It’s a great feeling to see those families together.”

Many natural tree dealers feel the same way, citing their work as “being in the people business,” talking about the pleasure of helping families pick out a tree or having the same people come back year after year, often into a second, even a third, generation.

According to the NCTA, Mississippi has 163 Christmas tree farms.

Steady prices

Prices haven’t changed much from last year, according to the NCTA. In 2003, the average price across the country was $33.80, which netted some $790 million for the nation’s 21,000 growers. These growers own some 500,000 acres, exclusively for Christmas trees.

The size of Christmas tree operations varies enormously. In San Luis Obispo County in California, Carl and Debbie Calloway expect to sell some 8,000 trees this season. John and Lois Arrechea will sell about 60 trees, Timberland Forest Products, outside Tupelo, is looking to sell around 500 trees and Eddy’s Christmas Tree Farm has tagged 1,500 trees for sale.

The Louisiana-Mississippi Christmas Tree Association Web site is: www.lams-christmas-trees.org.

Contact MBJ contributing writer at George McNeill at mbj@msbusiness.com.


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