Christmas tree sales appear to have bounced back from the depths of the recession, and owners of tree lots and farms in Metro Detroit say they're having a strong season so far.
"I think people are getting back to real trees," said Paul Blake, co-owner of Blake Farms in Armada and Almont. Blake estimates he sells 4,000 trees a year to people who explore his 100 acres of trees and cut their own.
Sales of both kinds of trees spiked last year, according to the National Christmas Tree Association. Consumers bought 33 million real trees in 2013 and 14 million artificial pines, the highest totals for both since 2007.
All those trees add up to big bucks — $1.16 billion in real tree sales last year and $1.19 billion in fake tree sales.
Christmas trees are a big business in Michigan, the nation's No. 3 producer. In 2012, the most recent year for which numbers are available, 1.74 million trees were harvested in Michigan, according to the national association.
The state has about 42,000 acres devoted to commercial Christmas tree production, worth more than $41 million in farm gate value, according to the Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development.
Real tree sales had been down nationally for several years, bottoming out in 2012 at 24.5 million. Marsha Gray, executive director of the Michigan Christmas Tree Association, said tree growers were hurt by a shift in consumer tastes toward artificial trees, which these days often come conveniently pre-lit.
"Obviously the artificial Christmas tree has probably been the primary reason that we have had reduced sells," she said. "If you buy a fake one, you are going to use it for a number of years and thus we have not lost one sale, but many sales."
Bert Cregg, associate professor in Michigan State University's horticulture and forestry departments, agreed, saying artificial trees were making in-roads for several years. "Now it's kind of flattening out," he said.
Cregg said that Fraser, Douglas and Concolor firs are popular this year.
Catherine Genovese, co-owner of Candy Cane Christmas Tree Farm in Oxford, said she has seen an increase in first-time real tree buyers.
"I have had a lot of calls from first-time buyers of real trees who say they were tired of their artificial," said Genovese. "If I had to put a number on it, I would say 5 to 10 percent would be new people."
Genovese said she primarily grows firs such as Fraser, Douglas, Concolor and Korean, which can run between $69-$89 out of the field.
"We generally price them at about $10 a foot. We go out there with a measuring stick and then price them to the closest half-foot, some times a little under," Genovese said. If they are a really tall tree, over 9 or 10 feet, where we have to climb a ladder to prune them, they might be $11 to $12 a foot.
Less than perfect trees are under $40, she said. Candy Cane Christmas Tree Farm also sells spruces that are priced between $49-$59.
Steve Snover, 60, of Grand Blanc, and his wife, Linda, picked out a nine-foot Korean fir during a visit to the Candy Cane farm last week.
Depending on the appearance and height, a real tree can cost $60 and up, he said.
"This is the third time getting this type of tree," said Snover. "It is pretty hearty for the house, it doesn't shed and the needles are soft."
Snover said he has had both artificial and real trees.
And while the price of a real tree has reportedly inched up this season, Michigan consumers like Snover aren't feeling the pinch.
"Actually this tree was a little less than last year," said Snover. "This year, we are $10 under last year."
In the coming years, growers expect the supply of trees to remain stable with prices gradually increasing, in part because it takes six to seven years for a seedling to grow large enough to sell. Even with the increase, most growers are being paid less now than in the mid-2000s, when trees from new and expanded farms hit the market as demand fell.
As a hedge, tree farms like Blake's have expanded their offerings to make getting a tree a festive holiday experience. At Blake Farms, tree buyers can get a free wagon ride to the tree farm, load up on fresh cider and munch on doughnuts. Santa's on hand for photos with the kids, and for the grownups, there's a hard cider tasting room.
"We do a lot of different things than selling trees and that has really made us a destination for people in the area looking for a tree," said Blake.
Gray, of the state's Christmas Tree Association, said demand at cut-your-own farms is up, boosting Michigan tree growers and off-season tourism.
Michelle Grinnell, a spokeswoman for Pure Michigan, the tourism arm of the Michigan Economic Development Corp., said winter tourism generates $3.6 billion a year in Michigan, and tree farms are a big part of that.
"We don't have hard numbers or data but certainly we promote Christmas tree farms this time of year," said Grinnell. "It is a great reason for families to get out and take a day trip and a way to explore Michigan."
But Cregg of MSU said he has noticed another trend that doesn't bode well for the producers and sellers of Christmas trees, whether real or fake.
"The biggest increase is that of people who don't have a Christmas tree at all," he said. "You have more people who are not Christian or that travel during the holidays and don't want to fool around with a tree."
UWatson@detroitnews.com(313) 222-2613Associated Press contributed.