Big Christmas tree firms are chopping little guy, some say

ROSEBURG — The Christmas tree tradition is under way again in Douglas County. And sales of trees for the holiday season will begin in earnest across Oregon today.

There'll be parking lot sales with some groups selling trees as fundraisers. Big box stores will have trees for sale. And there are some choose-and-cut (u-cut) tree farms.

Local growers, however, say there have been some changes in recent years, specifically that several mom-and-pop Christmas tree operations have closed up shop. The reasons vary from the growers getting older, to a surplus of trees, to big corporate tree farms taking over most of the markets, specifically the big box stores. The reason that there's now a surplus of trees is because seven or eight years ago when the market for trees was good, several bigger operations put more of their acreage into trees. Those trees are now ready for harvest.

"It's harder for the smaller guy to find a market for his trees due to the economy and bigger growers making deals with bigger businesses," said Ken Bunt of Roseburg. Bunt grows trees in the Yoncalla and Scio areas.

"There's less small tree farms," said Kim Adams, who, with her husband, Phil, owns the Oakland Tree Farm. "Every year we see a few more go."

Wayman Schmidt, who has been in the Christmas tree business in the Camas Valley since 1975, said just a few years ago he harvested and sold 20,000 trees. But in the past three or four years, his operation has cut and sold only 8,000 to 9,000 trees.

"I have the trees now that could be going to market, but I don't have the market," he said. "It's a bad situation because of three or four big outfits up north sucking up all the customers. They're putting out a million plus trees a year apiece and have taken over all the chain store markets. The little guys are going out of business. They're dying like flies."

Phil Adams said his wholesale business to a volunteer fire department in California and to a landscaping business in Boise, Idaho, has dropped by half the past few years, to 350 trees to each market. Kim Adams said she thinks the struggling economy in recent years has had an impact on the wholesale Christmas tree business and "people just don't want to put out those kind of dollars."

The Adamses think the u-cut tree business will remain strong because "people are tired of being blue."

"Maybe there's not a lot of presents, but there'll be a tree," said Kim Adams.

At the Oakland Tree Farm, u-cut prices will range from $3 a foot to $5, depending on the type of tree selected.

At Schmidt's tree farm on the west side of Camas Valley, the price is $15 for a tree and a few dollars more for a noble, depending on its size.

"The u-pick business has picked up quite a bit," said Schmidt. "We're seeing more people from the coast."

For people who want to venture out into the woods for a tree, Umpqua National Forest and Bureau of Land Management permits at $5 each are available. How many people buy those permits is usually dictated by the weather and subsequently will affect business at u-pick farms and lot sales.

"If there's a lot of snow in the forest, tree lots do pretty well," said Bunt. "If you can get to the woods easily, the lots don't do as well."

Oregon continues to be the nation's biggest producer of Christmas trees, harvesting about 7.8 million annually and supporting an industry with a value of $110 million.

Overall, the top destination continues to be California, with about half of 2009 sales headed there. Mexico is the state's biggest foreign customer for trees. Trees are also trucked to many other states in the U.S. and to several Pacific Rim countries, with deliveries beginning early in November.

Considered a farm crop, trees need six to nine years to reach a harvestable size, depending on the species and the height required. Trees that are grown locally are Douglas fir, grand fir, noble fir, Nordmann fir, blue spruce, Scotch pine, Frazier fir and concolor fir. Douglas and noble firs account for 92 percent of all tree sales in Oregon.

"It's a good family time to make a memory," Phil Adams said of picking, transporting and decorating Christmas trees.

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