Christmas tree demand outpaces growth in 'tight' Michigan market
This story has been updated to correct the first name of the co-owner of Hillside Christmas Tree Farm near Manchester. Richard Stefani owns it with his son.
With just days to go before the start of the holiday shopping season, Northwoods Hardware finally secured a supply of Christmas trees to sell along with the racks of red-bowed wreaths and greens available to customers in and around Glen Arbor every year.
A few weeks ago, the prospect of selling Christmas trees this holiday season looked bleak. Despite reaching out to about a dozen wholesalers and growers in northwestern Michigan, as far back as June, hardware owner Jeff Gietzen was unable to find Christmas trees.
“A lot of people were certainly disappointed we were not going to have trees,” said Gietzen, whose traditional hardware serves the small community near Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. “We typically sell 80 to 100 trees — that’s not a huge amount compared to a big tree retailer, but it’s important to our little community.”
Gietzen bought the trees from a grower on the Leelanau Peninsula, after a mix of social media and community interest helped him make the connection. Two of his employees went out to the Cedar farm to harvest the trees, and Gietzen bought a trailer to haul them to the store.
Northwoods Hardware is not the only retailer being creative with Christmas trees this holiday season. The reason is a tight Christmas tree market in Michigan and across the country, spurred, in part, by the last recession when many growers left the business, reducing inventory.
“Basically, it’s a tight market nationally. The demand is exceeding supply,” said Amy Start, executive director of the Michigan Christmas Tree Association, which represents 150 growers in the state. “Trees on the wholesale side are sold out for the season.”
The impact on consumers, Start and others said, will be a limited supply of Fraser firs, the most popular Christmas tree, and, in some cases, slightly higher prices. They are recommending customers who prefer Fraser firs shop early.
Other factors are affecting supply and demand as well. More growers are selling to big box stores because it’s more lucrative; some are also selling to Amazon, which recently added Christmas trees to its online delivery options. And then there are millennials, who are opting for real trees over artificial ones.
“There’s still a huge market for artificial trees,” Start said. “But millennials want a real Christmas tree. They’re going to Christmas tree farms for the experience. They want to take their families to the farm, like they take them to the cider mill, and create memories.”
Michigan is the third-largest producer of Christmas trees in the country, behind Oregon and North Carolina. Michigan harvests about 2 million trees a year. About 25 million to 30 million are sold each year across the country.
At English Gardens, which operates six stores in Metro Detroit and sells about 6,000 Christmas trees every year, more balsam firs have been added to the selection of trees this year to offset the shortage of Fraser firs. Most of the Dearborn Heights-based company’s trees come from Michigan. The store sells other Christmas tree varieties as well.
“Trees are tight everywhere. This started last year and is likely to be with us for a few years,” said Darrell Youngquest, merchandise manager and fresh Christmas tree buyer for English Gardens. “Christmas trees are not a quick crop. It takes seven to 10 years before you can harvest them.”
The Christmas trees arrived at English Gardens stores last week and are ready for sale.
“If someone wants a Fraser fir, I wouldn’t wait too long. I’d come early,” he said.
The largest Christmas tree farm in Michigan, Dutchman Tree Farms, near Cadillac, has been shipping Christmas trees since mid-November to garden centers, chain stores, retailers and independent corner tree lots. The farm grows a variety of Christmas trees, including Fraser fir, Douglas fir, white pine and blue spruce, and will ship more than 750,000 trees this year.
“It is a tight market,” said Scott Powell, a nursery manager whose father-in-law started the farm in 1972. Dutchman farms more than 8,000 acres of trees, mostly in Michigan.
“It’s the same as it was last year, but anybody in any ZIP code who wants a real Christmas tree will find one. It just may not be the exact species or retailer they want to purchase from.”
The demand for real Christmas trees, he said, isn’t expected to subside, and Dutchman has been planting more trees every year. The growth trend in the industry includes new tree farms and choose-and-cut farms.
“Consumer demand is there. There is still a strong market for real Christmas trees,” Powell said. “For us, being in the business for the long-term, it’s definitely something to keep an eye on. Our numbers are consistently up year after year.”
Some choose-and-cut farms are curtailing hours this holiday season because of other factors, not related to the national trends.
Hillside Christmas Tree Farm near Manchester will be open for sales this weekend. Tony Stefani, who owns the 83-acre farm with his father, Richard, said he has fewer mature trees available for cutting. About 40 acres are devoted to Christmas trees.
“Our problem is self-inflicted,” said Stefani, who noted the family stopped planting trees for awhile, uncertain about the farm’s future. “We started ramping planting up about five years ago, so a lot of the trees are not mature. We thought it was better to slow down sales with limited weekends than to completely close.”
Like other choose-and-cut farms, Hillside is seeing an uptick in business. Sales have been up 20% to 30% every year; Stefani hopes to eventually sell 2,500 trees a year.
“I think a lot of people are going back to their roots, establishing traditions with their families,” he said. “They’re choosing choose-and-cut over retail lots. They want to see where the trees are coming from. They want to create those memories with their children.”
In Oakland County, Candy Cane Christmas Tree Farm will curtail hours this year as well, to retain future tree supplies. Owner Catherine Genovese said the farm sold too many trees in previous years, keeping the 17-acre farm near Oxford open too long in the season.
“It’s a combination of things — not symptomatic of what’s going on in the industry,” Genovese said. “Last year, we found ourselves a little short. It’s a little better this year, but we want to have a good supply in the future. We have to play catch-up.”
'Shift in retail'
What Gietzen found out when he began his annual order for Christmas trees in June was that his primary supplier was concentrating on sales to big box stores. He contacted nearly a dozen other growers in the area and got the same response: no trees.
“I understand that dynamic,” said Gietzen, who purchased the Glen Arbor hardware store nearly a decade ago. “There’s been a general shift in retail from small to big stores and now from box stores to online stores. We still wanted to keep our commitment to local customers.”
While the population of Glen Arbor swells in the summer, thanks to tourists visiting the national park and the Lake Michigan shoreline, it’s a small community in the winter.
“Our ability to be successful depends on the support we get from the community,” he said. “We know there are other options out there. We didn’t want people to have to drive all the way to Traverse City. We are in retail — these sales are important especially in the slower time of the year.”
Greg Tasker is a Michigan-based freelance writer. Reach him at email@example.com.