DES MOINES, Iowa - Christmas tree likely will cost a little more this year, and growers like John Tillman say it's about time.
Six years of decreased demand and low prices put many growers out of business. Those who withstood the downturn are relieved they survived.
"I'm awful proud to still be in the Christmas tree business," said Tillman, who ships up to 20,000 trees each fall from nine fields south of Olympia, Washington. "We lost a lot of farmers who didn't make it through."
Prices vary according to the variety of tree, but growers this year will see about $20 per tree, $2 more than the last several years, according to Bryan Ostlund, executive director of the Salem, Oregon-based Pacific Northwest Tree Association. Prices will likely rise as the holidays near and supply decreases.
Consumers looking to deck their home could pay a little more than last year, but costs vary widely depending on factors such as transportation, tree-lot rental space and big-box retailers' demand that prices remain stable. For example, a 6-foot Douglas fir in Oregon, which grows about one-third of the nation's Christmas trees, could sell for $25 while a similar tree hauled to Southern California might go for $80.
Tara Deering-Hansen, a spokeswoman for Midwestern supermarket chain Hy-Vee, said wholesale tree prices have climbed slightly but prices are set at each store and customers might not see any increase.
Heavy snow last week slowed the shipment of trees from Michigan, which ranks third in production and supplies much of the Midwest and parts of the South. In some loading yards, stacks of trees awaiting shipment were covered with up to 2 feet of snow.
"Getting the snow off was more work than loading the trees," said Dan Wahmhoff, co-owner of a nursery in southwestern Michigan. "It was definitely a challenge -- wind and snow and cold, trucks were getting stuck -- but we made it through."
In the coming years, growers expect the supply of trees to remain stable with prices gradually increasing, in part because it takes six to seven years for a seedling to grow large enough to sell.
Even with the increase, most growers are being paid less now than in the mid-2000s, when trees from new and expanded farms hit the market as demand fell. And the industry still faces challenges, as competition from artificial tree manufacturers and other factors have led to a drop in trees harvested, from 20.8 million in 2002 to 17.3 million in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The National Christmas Tree Association, based in Missouri, has encouraged growers to offer more options that meet the needs of younger people who live in urban areas and don't have space for a towering tree, says executive director Rick Dungey. More growers are realizing that if they offer different looks - such as a tree that could fit on a coffee table or one thin enough to squeeze into a narrow room - people will buy them, Dungey said.
"There are more options and choices out there," he said.
Small tree-farm owners who sell straight to customers aren't as affected by the factors increasing prices to consumers nationally.
Jenny Howell, whose family runs Howell Tree Farm southwest of Des Moines, said they'll raise prices a bit because of high fuel prices for mowers and other equipment over the summer and drought that caused some seedlings to die. But their customers typically return each winter and don't spend time comparing her farm's prices to those in city lots.
It can be cold, hard work traipsing through the snowy tree farm in December, but Howell said her family still enjoys it.
"It's a happy business," she said.