Months of prolonged isolation and stress have many Michiganders looking for a little extra holiday cheer this season—and finding it in that perfect Fraser fir. Christmas tree sales are up this season, an industry that usually adds about $35 million to the state’s economy, according to Michigan Christmas Tree Association executive director Amy Start.
“It’s been a very, very busy season for sure,” Start said. “People are excited. [As a] matter of fact, a lot of farms, it’s been so busy that I suggest people call ahead and make sure they’re still open, because they have been so busy selling out.”
Scott Powell, the nursery manager at Dutchman Tree Farms in Manton, north of Cadillac, says many retail locations saw almost two weekends’ worth of sales during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. He says that might have to do with a decreased focus on Black Friday shopping this year.
“Or maybe it’s just a cause of people wanting to get out and get back to some normalcy, some level of common, shared family experience that maybe they haven’t been able to have here in 2020,” Powell said.
But as comfort-and-joy-seeking Michiganders line up (six feet apart) to choose their Christmas trees, the market is facing an undersupply, which puts a little extra strain on farms, Powell says. And it’s not just because of heightened demand in 2020. Powell says that because what happens in one year can affect the Christmas tree industry a decade later, this year's undersupply is tied to the 2008 recession, too. It takes roughly 12 years for a seedling to grow to desired Christmas tree size.
“There was a national oversupply at the time,” he said. “During that oversupply, farms were being paid less, and so they couldn’t plant back as much. So it’s kind of a combination of a lot of factors.”
Start says that this year, choose-and-cut tree farms have needed to adopt safety precautions for customers due to the pandemic, like sanitizing shared equipment, adding new signage, requiring masks, and practicing social distancing.
“The great thing about going to a Christmas tree farm is that there’s lots of land, so being socially distant is very easy to do,” Start said.
Christmas tree farms often rely on seasonal labor. Powell says that starting in August, the state of Michigan required COVID-19 testing for employees at large agricultural sites and provided resources and personnel to carry out those tests.
“We fared very well through that. Anybody who may have tested positive, they ended up being quarantined just as anybody would’ve in any other setting,” he said. “Our work crews tend to live together, travel together, work together, and so through that, we didn’t really have to adapt a whole lot in that practice.”
Some growers have faced difficulty finding workers amid the ongoing public health crisis, Start adds.
“I've heard a lot of people talking about how hard it was to get people to work,” she said. “A lot of students work in farms through this holiday selling season, and some people just aren’t letting their kids go to work or don’t want them to this year because of COVID.”
As for tree selection, Michiganders tend to prefer Fraser firs, Powell says. But perhaps due to a lack of fir varieties available in particular zip codes amid heightened demand, pine and spruce trees have also become more popular, he says.
If you’re celebrating Christmas and have yet to purchase a tree this year, Start recommends following your instincts and choosing the tree that calls to you. And no matter the species, she adds, make sure you give it plenty of water to ensure it lasts through this strange holiday season.
This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.