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Yule tree buyers go for real, live X-mas trees

| Tuesday, April 24, 2012, 8:43 a.m.

Bernie Bucchianeri thinks a trend is developing.

Bucchianeri, who grows and sells Christmas trees from his farm in Washington County, says he is seeing more and more young couples drop by his place in search of the perfect holiday tree for their living room or den.

"A lot of people who grew up with artificial trees are discovering the joys of a real Christmas tree," said Bucchianeri, the owner/operator of Lone Oak Farm, across from Ringgold High School, west of Monongahela on Route 136.

Whether Bucchianeri is merely seeing the Christmas tree equivalent of dancing sugar plums or is on to something may be subject to debate, but 2011 is shaping up as a year in which the market for locally grown Christmas trees is in exceptionally good shape.

"It's been an excellent growing season," said Laura Carino of Carino Nurseries in Indiana County. "All the rain we've gotten has really affected the quality of the trees."

This season's trees, noted J.D. Fleming of Fleming's Christmas Tree Farm in Indiana County, were subject to one short dry spell, in June and July.

As a result, he said, they received enough rain to set them up for weeks of healthy indoor living, provided, of course, that owners keep their trees properly watered.

"Sometimes, if it's too dry in the spring, it's a problem, but we didn't have that problem this year," said Tim Trax, tree sales manager at Trax Farms in Finleyville.

There are about 1,200 Christmas tree farms in Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Christmas Tree Growers Association expects sales of about 1.1 million trees this season. Local sellers report prices have held steady from last year.

"Price depends on the competition and local conditions," said Fleming. "It also depends on the kind of tree you buy and the size. There are a couple of variables."

For his part, Fleming said he is holding the line on what customers pay. The same holds true for Carino Nurseries, which sells trees only at wholesale.

According to Laura Carino, the minimum purchase at her nursery is 10 trees, at a cost of $300. An order of 600 trees -- a truck-and-half worth of firs, spruce and pine -- costs in the $15,000 range, she said.

Carino, who supplies holiday trees to independent retailers in seven states -- Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, Maryland, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut -- has not tried to extend her reach into Texas or Oklahoma, where dry weather has decimated that region's Christmas tree crop.

"What really determines your market is transportation costs," Carino said. "To get trees to Texas would cost us plenty."

Rick Dungey of the National Christmas Tree Association, a trade group based in Chesterfield, Mo., said because Pennsylvania has a large number of producers who can offer a wide variety of species, it's "highly likely" most trees consumers purchase are grown in-state.

Some big retailers do ship trees in for sale. Home Depot gets trees delivered from Happy Holiday Tree Farms in Michigan, said spokeswoman Jennifer King. Lowe's stores get their Christmas trees from a variety of locations in the Pittsburgh region as well as from neighboring states, said spokeswoman Karen Cobb.

Local growers and sellers were busy over the weekend making sure customers found the ideal firs, pines and spruces for their homes. Luann Reeder, an employee of Lake Forest Gardens in Fombell said that Friday, the first official day of the Christmas tree-selling season, was much busier this year than last because of the sunny, 60-degree weather.

"It's pretty exciting," she said.

Building excitement is part of the marketing campaign on behalf of live tree sales, both Fleming and Bucchianeri said.

Fleming likes to tout the idea of family tradition in the purchase of a Christmas tree. "We've had families with children as young as 2 (years old) here, starting a tradition. And there are families with children in college who came around later on -- after the kids are home from school. The family thing is what makes Christmas special."

Fleming said he has had customers travel to his place from as far away as Cleveland.

Like Fleming, Bucchianeri offers customers an opportunity to cut their own trees before hauling them home. In addition, Bucchianeri said he has Santa Claus on hand and offers wagon rides to help make the tree-hunting and chopping experience a merry one.

In 2010, according to the National Christmas Tree Association, 32 percent of the live Christmas trees sold that year were purchased at what the industry calls "choose and harvest" farms, like Fleming's and Bucchianeri's.

Twenty-one percent were sold at national outlets, including Wal-Mart and Home Depot, while 13 percent were sold on retail lots, the association said.

"Fake trees are here to stay," conceded Fleming, noting manufacturers are making "them look better" all the time.

"Still, there's nothing like a live tree," he said.

Bucchianeri was equally insistent. "Who wants a fake tree?" he said.

He has a point, at least according to National Christmas Tree Association statistics. The trade group reports on its website that 27 million "real" Christmas trees were sold nationwide last year compared with 8.2 million "fake" trees.

According to the association, artificial tree sales peaked from 9 million in 2004 to 17.4 million in 2007. Sales dipped in both 2008 and 2009 to 11.7 million, the group said.

Sales of live trees have experienced similar swings, although at higher levels. There were 27.1 million sold in 2004, the association said; 32.8 million in 2005; 28.6 million in 2006; 31.3 million in 2007; 28.2 million in 2008; and 28.2 million in 2009.

What was not reported in the trade group's survey was the obvious: Live trees are good for just a short period of time, while fake trees can be used time and again, year after year.

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