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Christmas Tree Farmers Ready for the Holiday

A festive evergreen, festooned with garlands and sparkling decorations, topped by a star or angel, is a cherished symbol of the Christmas season. Fully a third of the 27-million live Christmas trees sold in the United States are grown on tree farms in the Pacific Northwest. That's where we sent Correspondent Tom Banse to check on the frenzied harvest.

Helicopters lift Christmas trees off of hills where big trucks can't go. A lot of large growers - like Mark Steelhammer - use choppers to move trees fast. "Yeah, helicopters are around $600 an hour, plus," he admits, "but they move a lot of trees, probably a thousand trees in an hour, at least."

The heavy lifting is not the hardest part, at least not this year. Mr. Steelhammer notes that shipping prices are higher than usual, and he's had a hard time finding enough trucks to deliver his lush greenery to customers around the country. "With the hurricanes back there it's good when it happened it probably happened that early, not just a month ago. But they are still using a lot of trucks of course to bring supplies in for that, so we're competing with that."

There's the daily battle to get fresh trees to market, and then there's a larger war to recapture market share from artificial trees. Mark Steelhammer is President-elect of the National Christmas Tree Association. "I have a real hard problem with thinking about tradition with young kids especially going to a store and getting the boxed up plastic one from China." He shakes his head as he looks across rows of his trees. "To me, that's not traditional. Or pulling it out of the attic and dusting it off. I like real branches, real needles and real smell, you know." He says U.S. tree growers are stepping up the offensive against fake trees by donating money to a special marketing fund.

Artificial trees present a serious threat. They now grace about one in three American households. A fake tree doesn't cost much more than a real one. It might even come with lights built in.

Local growers have another challenge: a swelling inventory of Christmas trees. Mr. Steelhammer says a surplus developed because many tree farmers responded to the recent decade of good prices by planting more seedlings. Now wholesale prices are sinking, anywhere from 5-30%. "Prices have come down a little and we'll still make good money. Those who have watched their operating expenses et cetera over the years and not gone out and gone too crazy on big new equipment will do fine, you know." But the lower prices at wholesale are offset by the increased cost of trucking.

Rochester, Washington tree grower John Tilman figures he'll still make money on his harvest this year. He's worked pretty much non-stop from early November to the second week in December… cutting, baling, and shipping Christmas trees. "We cut them at the last moment," he explains. As his workers' chainsaws whine, he adds, "The truck is coming tomorrow." That truck will take these Noble Firs to Fresno, California. Earlier, his crew filled a refrigerated container destined for Hong Kong. In all, he sent 27,000 trees to market.

Now, like the nation's 22,000 other Christmas tree farmers, Mr. Tilman can focus on setting up and decorating his own holiday tree.