By Justin Grimes
Published March 2, 2011 for the Avery Journal
Christmas tree growers and their associations nationwide are trying to stem the tide of mostly imported fake Christmas trees. To do so, a national task force comprised of growers from across the country began work in 2008 designing a plan petitioning the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to create a Christmas Tree Promotion, Research and Information Order, known as a check-off.
Published in the Federal Register in November 2010, the USDA check-off had an original public comment period that lasted until Feb. 7, 2011. At the request of Rep. Patrick McHenry and at least three Avery growers who said that the order was published during the busy Christmas tree sales period and that they needed more time for consideration, the USDA extended the public comment period until March 9.
Ten years ago, more than 30 million real Christmas trees were sold every year in the U.S., but sales dropped to 22 million in 2002, due to heavy advertising from the artificial tree industry, stated the task force. Artificial tree sales nearly doubled to 17.4 million annually from 2003 to 2007. Fresh-tree sales, meanwhile, fell from 37 million in 1991 to 31 million in 2007, according to the USDA.
Growers countered the artificial tree advertising in 2004 with a voluntary initiative through the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA) to fund greater promotions that raised $900,000. By 2005, sales of farm-grown trees jumped up to 33 million, and the average price nationwide went from $33 a tree to $42, suggesting that coordinated national advertising campaigns work for the industry.
But by 2007, the voluntary contributions from growers declined to $400,000 and in 2009, the contributions were down to $100,000.
If it’s approved, McClatchy newspapers have reported that the new promotion program would raise an estimated $2 million a year to help offset the growing market share of the artificial trees.
The American Nursery & Landscape Association, which enthusiastically endorses the check-off, stated, “Christmas trees, like nursery stock, are a high-value agricultural product. Yet, the industry is in transition. In 1990, an equal number of American households displayed real versus fake trees. In 2009, 56 percent of households who had a Christmas tree displayed a fake tree, whereas only 23 percent displayed a real tree. Simply put, this is a case of a domestically produced agricultural product losing market share to a manufactured foreign import and a potentially dangerous one at that.”
Fake Christmas trees are not biodegradable. Eight-five percent are imported from China and according to theWashington Post are manufactured “On the concrete floors of Zhang's Shuitou’s factory by migrant workers, most earning about $100 a month, squatting in front of hissing machinery as they melt chips into moldable plastic...”
Most artificial Christmas trees are made of metals and plastics. The plastic material, typically PVC, can be a potential source of hazardous lead. The potential for lead poisoning is great enough that fake trees made in China are required by California Prop 65 to have a warning label.
“Unfortunately for real Christmas tree growers during the past decade, fake tree companies have increased their advertising and gone on the attack against real Christmas trees,” stated the NCTA. “The American Christmas Tree Association, a website for a fake tree company claims that fake trees are safer, cleaner, more economical and better for the environment and consumers believe it. One survey showed that for every consumer who said a real tree was better for the environment, four thought that a fake tree was better. Farm-grown trees are the real ‘green industry.’ They are locally grown, serve as habitat for wildlife, take carbon dioxide out of the air, produce oxygen and create local jobs.”
In a review by The Avery Journal-Times of the 656 comments from across the country including all the comments from North Carolinians made thus far, the check-off enjoys overwhelming support from growers in Avery, Ashe and Watauga counties and from most respondents from all across the state.
Among the criticisms, opponents of the check-off argue that: they don’t want the government in their business; that in free enterprise supply and demand rules the marketplace; that the proposal is not fair from a one-tree one-vote perspective; that they spend large amounts advertising independently; that they can’t afford the assessment and are not represented by the Christmas tree associations.
Among the supporters of the check-off are the NCTA—which claims to represent along with allied state and local associations roughly three quarters of the nation’s Christmas tree growers—the North Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture and the North Carolina Christmas Tree Association, located in Boone, which forwarded the following statement to The AJT.