In One Chart: ‘Great Recession’ a decade ago is one reason your Christmas tree will cost more this year

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Sprucing up your home may be a bit more expensive this Christmas.

That’s because the price of natural Christmas trees has been rising over the past few years, thanks to lingeringly tight supply in the wake of the Great Recession, as well as a labor shortage and inclement weather stunting harvests at some tree farms in Oregon, Michigan, North Carolina and Missouri over the past couple of years.

The average live evergreen cost $78 last year, which was up $3 (a 4% increase) from the roughly $75-per-tree price tag in 2016 and 2017, according to the National Christmas Tree Association, the official trade organization for the natural Christmas tree industry.

But that didn’t stop Americans from spending more than $2 billion on more than 32.8 million live trees last year, according to the association — 5 million more trees than the year before. And the trade group’s seasonal spokesperson, Doug Hundley, told MarketWatch that he expects to see a similar pattern this year. So if prices creep up another 4%, the average tree would cost just over $81.

Yet some tree farmers in states whose crops have been hit especially hard have warned that tree prices could jump an extra $20 or $25.

The Cole’s Christmas Tree Farm in Missouri, for example, saw a fungal infection rip through its Scotch pines after heavy rains and flooding soaked the state this year. This caused a shedding of pine needles, and it will be another two or three years before those trees fill out again. “We are actually going and picking up another 90 trees at another tree farm to bring in to sell,” the owner told local news outlet KY3.

And Oregon’s historic Kirchem Farm told NBC affiliate KGW that it won’t be selling Christmas trees at all this year — for the first time in three decades — because it does not have enough trees over 5 feet tall. That’s the result of a seedlings shortage eight to 10 years ago (as it takes seven to 10 years for many Christmas trees to grow high and full enough to look good in your home), as well as hot, dry summers in 2017 and 2018 killing thousands of younger trees. Kirchem Farms does expect to be open next year, however, after its trees have had some more time to grow.

Oregon State University Christmas tree specialist Chal Landgren told MarketWatch that many farms where families can go to cut their own trees have shut down. Some owners chose to retire and had no one willing to maintain the farm. Others are facing labor shortages, so they’ve shifted to less labor-intensive crops, such as hazelnuts and grass seed.

“We’re also rebounding from a period of oversupply,” he said, explaining that the Pacific Northwest was harvesting 8 million trees at one point before the recession; it’s now down to half the number of trees, and half the number of growers.


So what happened? The glut of yule trees 10 years ago came just as customers started tightening their budgets during the recession, which led to a surplus of trees and selling prices that were less than what the trees had cost farmers to produce. “And that was a washout, largely because farmers didn’t find it profitable to stay in business,” said Landgren, who also runs a small Christmas tree farm. (He is not raising prices this year, he said.)

So growers planted fewer trees after 2008. Now, a decade later, that smaller crop of trees is being harvested for the holidays.

The good news for farmers is that the prices have risen to where they are starting to see a profit again. Indeed, between 2008 and 2015, the average Christmas tree price jumped 28%. But holiday shoppers will be shelling out a little more.

“We have a tight supply, which is balanced to meet demand,” said Hundley. “But everyone that wants a tree will get one.”

Related: Will millennials be the saviors of the real Christmas tree industry?

You might want to pick out your tree on the earlier side, however, especially if you have a specific height or variety in mind. “If you want a 10-foot Fraser pine, I wouldn’t wait until Dec. 15 go to looking for that tree — I would go look for it right after Thanksgiving,” said Hundley. “But if you’re buying 6-foot or 7-foot trees, they’ll probably be out there well into December.”

Holiday shoppers in the areas with more acute tree shortages, like Oregon, Missouri and North Carolina, may also need to start shopping earlier. “People might have to look at a couple of tree farms or local tree stands, rather than that favorite one you’ve always gone to,” he said. “Don’t wait till the week before Christmas to go buying a tree.”

Then again, those who dare to delay tree hunting till the last minute will score the best bargains. Square has analyzed its Christmas tree sales data to pinpoint the best and worst times to buy a tree. It says Cyber Monday is the most expensive day, when the average evergreen will peak at $84. The cheapest day to buy a tree is at the last minute, on Christmas Eve, when the average price plummets to $50.

But as tree sellers warn, you run the risk of there being nothing left besides sad and droopy-looking trees straight out of “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

As for where Americans will be picking up their Douglas or Fraser firs, the National Christmas Tree Association’s consumer survey found that a plurality of shoppers (28%) either visit a choose-and-cut farm or a chain store like Walmart WMT, -0.34% , Home Depot HD, -0.15% or Lowe’s LOW, +0.30% to pick out a tree, while 23% go to a tree lot. Some 2% order their trees online from sites such as Amazon AMZN, +0.33% , and 6% shop at nonprofits such as churches and Boy Scout events.

And if you’re worried that buying your tree early means it won’t last until Christmas, here are five tips for picking the best tree and keeping it green through the holidays.

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