News-Sentinel staff writer
Lodians are likely to shell out more green than ever for a Christmas tree this year.
Expect the average tree to cost a few dollars more than it did last year - and don't be surprised to find prices have jumped as much as 20 percent at some local lots for the most desirable specimens.
Behind the hikes are high demand, low supply, rising production costs and a shortage of seedlings, industry insiders say.
Many buyers this year are being drawn to the choose-and-cut market out of reasons like tradition and value - not to mention the fun of cutting down their own tree.
"Each student got to saw five times," said Donna Tungesvik, who brought her first-grade class from Lodi Adventist Elementary out to Galt's Forest Creek Christmas Trees on Tuesday to pick out a tree to adorn their classroom.
"We'll have it in water back at the school within 15 minutes," she said as her students squealed in delight while a motorized tree-shaker jostled the loose pine needles off the boughs of their 7-foot Douglas fir.
Some shoppers are steering clear this year of the tall trees and more expensive varieties in favor of more moderately priced alternatives.
In the lot of Lodi's Wal-Mart store on Kettleman Lane, a 6- to 7-foot Noble fir is priced at $47.48.
"That's quite a bit higher than last year," said shopper Pam Moody, who was instead checking out Douglas fir trees, which could be had in the same size for $23.74.
"I'm just going to get something a little less expensive, I guess," Moody said.
Others didn't mind spending more.
Because of the importance of Christmas to American families, folks like Ron Nadeau of Galt are more than happy to play St. Nick when it comes to buying the best for their families.
Nadeau had visited four area dealers before he arrived at Art's Tree Lot, which has been setting up shop at the Lodi Grape Festival Grounds for the past 37 Christmas seasons.
Last year, Nadeau paid $76 for a 7-foot Noble fir. In 2001, the same tree could wind up costing him upwards of $100.
"For what I want, the prices seem to be running in the high 80s," he said. "But that's only $10 more than last year.
"Hey, that's only (the price of a) lunch."
Although operator Art Dunn said the first few days of sales have been disappointingly slow, he is confident that business will soon pick up.
"This is about the earliest that Thanksgiving can ever come," said Dunn, a retired lumberjack from Calaveras County, as he waited for customers to show up Tuesday afternoon.
Weekend storms were also responsible for keeping many shoppers at home, he said, adding that the next three weekends should see things turn around - weather permitting.
There are a number of factors behind rising tree prices, industry insiders say.
"The situation is that the demand far outstrips the supply," said Terry Christner, a tree farmer from Molalla, Ore., who currently has about 125,000 trees growing on his 70-acre spread in Clackamas County - an area which is one of the biggest producers of Christmas trees on earth.
About 10 years ago, growers were lucky to get $1.80 per foot for their Noble fir trees, which must grow for eight to 12 years before they are ready for market, Christner said.
Today, however, increased demand means the same tree may fetch more than $5 per foot.
But in recent years the rising cost of growing trees and shipping them to market has meant that growers like Christner have had to cope with ever-shrinking profit margins.
At about $7 an hour, Oregon tree-farm laborers now earn the highest established minimum wage in the nation, Christner said. A recent change in Oregon law lifted Christmas tree farming's protection as an agricultural enterprise - meaning in addition to higher wages, growers now must pay overtime to laborers for working in excess of 40 hours a week.
Another important part of the equation has been the scarcity of seedlings brought about by a cyclic shortage of the pine cones produced by special trees used for seed stock, Christner said.
"At this point in the season, if you wanted to start your own lot, you couldn't do it," he said. "The trees simply aren't available any more."
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