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Selling holiday trees good for W. Pa. family businesses

| Friday, Dec. 2, 2016, 11:42 p.m.
Joyce Hanz | For the Tribune-Review
Dave Vargo, of Kiski Plaza Garden Center in Allegheny Township, unwraps one of the 400 Christmas trees delivered from Indiana County last week.
Joyce Hanz | For the Valley News Dispatch
Joe Tokarski, 42, of Buffalo Township, prepares to tag a Fraser fir for cutting at Ski Christmas Tree farm in Clinton Township. Tokarski is son of tree farm owner Roland Pokarski. He grew up in the tree business and works year round pruning and managing the land.
Joyce Hanz | For the Valley News Dispatch
A couple shops for the perfect Christmas tree at the Ski Tree Farm in Clinton Township, Butler County.

Amanda Coscarelli of Lower Burrell grew up with an artificial Christmas tree each season.

Her boyfriend, Travis Eiler of West Deer, always had a fresh cut tree each Christmas at home.

The couple recently strolled the acreage on Ski Christmas Tree Farm in Clinton Township, dotted with more than 20,000 Christmas trees, searching for the perfect tree.

It was Coscarelli's first jaunt to a tree farm.

Eiler's idea of choosing a fresh cut tree remains the most popular one in the United States.

Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Christmas Tree Association, a trade group for the farm-grown Christmas tree industry, show that Americans prefer to deck their halls with fresh cut trees.

Real trees outsold artificial ones by a 2-to-1 margin last year — 25 million compared with 12.5 million.

Maybe it's the sharp pine scent or the tree selection process that sends shoppers seeking a good ol' traditional Christmas tree experience.

“I did have one real tree once before,” Coscarelli said. “It was so messy, but the cleanup time after Christmas was less because I didn't have to disassemble an artificial tree and pack it away.”

Pennsylvania is No. 4

Pennsylvania has bragging rights in the Christmas tree industry, ranking fourth nationwide in trees harvested, with more than one million cut in 2012, the most recent data from the USDA.

Nearby Indiana County touts itself as “The Christmas Tree Capital of The World,” and many local Alle-Kiski businesses stock their lots with trees from farms there.

Pennsylvania once again provided the Christmas tree to the White House in 2015, receiving an 18-foot Fraser fir that hailed from Bustard's Christmas Trees in Carbon County.

Since 2004, fresh-cut tree sales have decreased however, to 25.9 million sold in 2015 compared with 27.1 million in 2004 — still exceeding total sales of fake trees. Artificial trees sales have increased since 2004, with 12.5 million sold in 2015, an increase of 3.5 million.

A-K residents prefer the Fraser firs for holidays

380 Discount Warehouse in Murrysville sells both artificial and fresh cut trees. Owner Jim Beacom sells more than 2,500 fresh trees annually from his outdoor lot.

“I see more of a demand for live trees,” he said. “We sell live trees 4-to-1 compared to artificial.”

Beacom noted many customers with allergies choose artificial trees.

“All of our live trees are either Fraser or Cabaan fir and local, harvested from Indiana County farms,” Beacom said. “We see a lot of repeat customers coming back each year, making a memory of bringing the family out and choosing a tree.”

Good weather always helps sales, he said, and the unseasonably warm temps in November helped.

“A rainy day will kill the day (for sales),” Beacom said.

Sales have been steady at Kiski Plaza Garden Center in Allegheny Township, where 400 fresh cut trees arrive annually, cut just days before, from Indiana County.

“The nice weather has people out,” said owner Dave Vargo. “People like to shop early for their tree — they get the tree they want and ours are fresh and they know they will keep.”

Vargo noted they sell “very few artificial trees” and that “the Fraser fir” is very popular every year.

“The fir family of trees lasts the longest — they hold their needles,” he said.

A family tradition

The Sturgeon family of Gilpin Township are big on tradition.

Each season, they visit Habe's Nursery, in Gilpin, to select their fresh tree.

“We chose a 8 12 foot Fraser fir and paid $45 this year,” said Kim Sturgeon, who has come each year to Habe's since 2002. “No way would we ever consider an artificial tree. This time for us is more than getting a Christmas tree — it has become our family tradition.

“Our daughter, Rubie, has gone there since she was a baby. She has memories of talking with John (the owner) and choosing a free ornament from their basket, visiting the shop and, of course, selecting our tree.”

Habe's, in business since 1943, plants 2,000 seedlings each spring.

Owner John Sterosky is a third generation tree farmer, raised in the family business.

“I have a customer that has been coming here for 55 years,” Sterosky said. “He only missed two years when he was in the Army.”

And the big seller at Habe's?

“Over the years, blue spruce was my main seller, but now 99 percent of sales here are the firs — especially the Fraser fir.

“The big thing is handling them — blue spruce has rough needles that are hard and sharp. But they do have sturdy branches that can handle the heavy ornaments,” Sterosky said.

“The Fraser fir has a bendable branch but soft needles, and I think they hold their needles hold the best.”

Joyce Hanz is a freelance writer.

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