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$1B Christmas tree industry has deep roots in Pa.

Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review - Dominic Pillage, 14, of Mars navigates through the Grupp Tree Farm in Harmony on Thursday Nov. 28, 2013, with the Christmas tree that he, his sister, Nicole, 12, and mother, Gina Pillage, picked out.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Andrew Russell  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Dominic Pillage, 14, of Mars navigates through the Grupp Tree Farm in Harmony on Thursday Nov. 28, 2013, with the Christmas tree that he, his sister, Nicole, 12, and mother, Gina Pillage, picked out.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review - Al Veronick, 70, of Bradford Woods carries home his family Chrtistmas Tree at the Grupp Tree Farm in Harmony, Thursday Nov. 28, 2013.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Andrew Russell  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Al Veronick, 70, of Bradford Woods carries home his family Chrtistmas Tree at the Grupp Tree Farm in Harmony, Thursday Nov. 28, 2013.
Evan R. Sanders | Daily Courier - Jeremy Shawley of Scottdale balances a pine tree after removing binding string used to transport the tree while he and fellow co-workers begin to set up at Appleseeds Farms along Route 119 in Bullskin on Friday, November 29, 2013. Workers at Appleseeds Farm, a roadside market, were unloading trees and pines that will be for sale during the holiday season.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Evan R. Sanders  |  Daily Courier</em></div>Jeremy Shawley of Scottdale balances a pine tree after removing binding string used to transport the tree while he and fellow co-workers begin to set up at Appleseeds Farms along Route 119 in Bullskin on Friday, November 29, 2013. Workers at Appleseeds Farm, a roadside market, were unloading trees and pines that will be for sale during the holiday season.

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Is industry losing its needles?

Gauging the health of the Christmas tree industry can be tricky.

Industry experts say sales have been stable for years, but federal statistics indicate a decline.

Pennsylvania tree farmers harvested more than 1.7 million trees in 2002, but just 1.1 million five years later, a 32 percent drop, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics. Nationwide, 17.4 million trees were harvested in 2007, down 16 percent from 2002.

Rick Dungey, spokesman for the Missouri-based National Christmas Tree Association, said such statistics do not tell the whole story.

First, the numbers are old, he said. The USDA conducts the census every five years and has not released 2012 stats.

In addition, tree farming differs from other agricultural activities in that trees planted one year will not be ready to harvest for seven to nine years, officials said. Annual harvests can be affected by many variables, including pest infestation, drought and the number of people traveling for the holidays, meaning year-to-year numbers can swing widely. A survey taken every five years could simply land on a down year, officials said.

More reliable numbers are provided by the association, Dungey said, which since 2006 reported about $1 billion in annual sales and between 25 million and 30 million trees sold per year.

“It's been pretty consistent,” Dungey said.

'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

Saturday, Nov. 30, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
 

Every day looks like Christmas on Jack Grupp's farm.

Thousands of perfectly shaped pines dot the hilly 84 acres in Harmony. Add a coating of snow, Grupp said, and it looks magical.

“Sometimes, though, we're a little too busy to really enjoy it,” said Grupp, who founded Grupp's Christmas Trees with his wife, Nancy, in 1982. “It's a lot of hard work. But seeing people come here and have a good time, especially little kids — this is our time of year.”

The Grupps are part of a national $1 billion industry of growing and selling live Christmas trees. Pennsylvania is a major player, with 1,205 Christmas tree farms — the second-most in the country behind Oregon. Farmers here annually harvest more than a million trees, according to the Department of Agriculture.

Many people who buy real trees trek to farms. At Grupp's, visitors stroll, looking carefully before selecting a tree to cut.

With an average tree costing $40, it's a recession-proof holiday tradition, said Stacy Zimmerman, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Christmas Tree Growers Association.

“When the economic situation turned from bad to worse, we saw an increase in the number of families visiting tree farms,” Zimmerman said. “They made it to be a big family affair — spending the day together, going to the farm, starting a tradition.

“For $40, that's a very inexpensive way to spend a day with family and create a memory.”

The Grupps work year-round to facilitate such memories.

After planting saplings in the spring, Grupp spends the summer trimming maturing trees to form the conical shape Americans desire.

“We work until they're all done,” he said. “Some years, I don't get to them all.”

Zimmerman wonders who will step in when older farmers retire: “To younger generations, tree farming doesn't seem so sexy.”

Yet, studies show that people younger than 30 prefer to buy real trees,rather than fake trees, said Rick Dungey, spokesman for the National Christmas Tree Association.

“They like tradition, and they like using renewable resources,” Dungey said. “The challenge is providing this generation with options. Some people want to buy trees online, for example. There's even a delivery service that brings you your tree and sets it up for you.”

Grupp remains confident that families will continue to visit local Christmas tree farms. He sells hundreds of trees each year.

“There's a core group of people who make buying a Christmas tree an event,” Grupp said. “They come year after year.”

Bob and Anna Starr of Valencia are among them.

“We go all-out for Christmas,” Anna Starr said. “I'd like three trees this year.”

Chris Togneri is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5632 or ctogneri@tribweb.com.

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