Anyone hoping to deck the halls this year may want to do so quickly.
After record-breaking demand for Christmas trees in 2020, local growers and retailers are gearing up for what they expect to be one of their busiest and most challenging seasons yet, as a tight labor market, rising wholesale prices, and a continuing shortage of trees create seasonal uncertainty.
“Last year, we had the biggest season ever with Christmas tree sales,” said Tim O’Connor, executive director of the National Christmas Tree Association. With the pandemic grinding on, “people were pent up, sheltering at home. Everyone wanted to get a tree.”
Sometimes, more than one. “They were buying them for the living room, for the kids’ room, the hallway,” said Nino Lambert, owner of Lambert’s Rainbow Market in Dorchester, Westwood, Pembroke, and Braintree. “People were screaming for trees. . . . I literally ran out the first week in December.”
To keep up with last year’s frenzy, many local Christmas tree farms opted to cut and sell trees they normally would have left in the ground. On cut-your-own farms in Massachusetts, consumers this year may notice “fewer trees and less height,” said Mark Harnett, owner of Mistletoe Christmas Tree Farm in Stow, which sells both pre-cut and cut-your-own trees.
“We sold a lot of our 2021 stock in 2020,” Harnett said of trees grown on the farm. “We have about half as many trees as we normally do in the field.”
All that demand put pressure on sellers of pre-cut trees, as well. Growers in the United States and Canada not only began charging top dollar for wholesale trees, but many retailers had to place orders as early as January — with money up front — to secure this year’s shipments.
“We had the money, so we gave it to them, but a lot of the smaller guys can’t do money up front,” Lambert said. “A lot of the businesses around me aren’t going to open for Christmas trees this year.”
Ferjulian’s Farm in Hudson is one of them. After 30 years of selling pre-cut trees, the family-owned farm has decided to discontinue its Christmas tree sales this year. The main reason? They can’t get enough trees from their supplier.
“It’s a tough business to be in,” said owner Erin Ferjulian. The farm typically buys Fraser firs from North Carolina, she said, but their partnering grower hasn’t been able to fill their order for the past couple of years. “The grower said it’d be the same situation this year, so we just decided, given the market, that we didn’t want to sell trees.”
So why can’t growers fill wholesale orders from retailers like Ferjulian’s? There are several reasons, one of which dates back to around 2008 when the Great Recession meant demand for Christmas trees (and just about everything else) crashed. As demand ebbed, growers began planting fewer trees.
“Many farms planted less baby trees 8 years ago because the demand was soft and therefore there are less mature trees to harvest now,” John Dzen Jr., owner of Dzen Tree Farm in Connecticut, wrote in a Nov. 12 Facebook post.
And since the growth cycle of a typical Christmas tree can be anywhere from seven to 12 years, “[Growers are] still living with decisions they made 10 years ago, which is why they’re short,” Ferjulian said. Those long-term issues, combined with last year’s enormous demand, have left tree stocks further depleted.
But even when trees are available, it costs much more this year to get them to market. Mike Casto, manager of Houde’s Christmas Tree Farm in Marlborough, said he’s wrestling with surging prices and supply chain issues. “Wholesale price is up, diesel price is up, trucking is up, and delivery dates are off,” Casto said. “We’re OK, but we have to be flexible.”
As with other industries, labor shortages are making things even more complicated.
“Labor is a big issue for all of agriculture,” said O’Connor. “There are hiring signs everywhere you go today. These are long-term systemic problems.”
Jeff Feccia, owner of Christmas Tree For Me, an online tree delivery service based in Boston, said many of the Canada-based growers he works with “have all the trees they want to sell,” but “the tough part is having enough people to load them up and ship them here.”
“I’m not worried about clients being able to get the trees,” he said. “The thing that’s been a struggle is the trucking: Getting the exact trucking delivery dates that we want.” Like other retailers, Feccia said he managed to secure more than 3,000 trees this year by placing his orders early.
The opening day for Christmas tree sales is traditionally the day after Thanksgiving, but since the holiday falls a bit late this year, many retailers are hoping to start selling trees a little earlier. Lambert’s Rainbow Market is expecting its first shipment this week, and Feccia plans to start deliveries on Tuesday.
And while localized shortages are being felt in certain parts of the country, O’Connor emphasized that there are plenty of Christmas trees for the holiday, it’s just a matter of getting them where they need to be.
“We as an industry have never run out of Christmas trees,” he said. After years of planting too many trees, the market has “righted itself” to be in line with demand.
Still, anyone in Massachusetts hoping to score their dream tree this year might want to abide by this advice from Feccia: “Order it today.”