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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Flat Christmas tree prices are putting a burden on state growers, a University of Tennessee forester said Friday.

Dr. Larry Tankersley of UT’s Agricultural Extension Service said prices — about $25 for a six-foot pine to $45 for a similar-sized Fraser fir — have not risen in recent years. Some prices may have dropped, he said.

“There was a good rate of return and a lot of people got into the market in the early 1980s,” Tankersley said. “But there is almost a glut of trees now that is holding prices down.

“I’ve been astounded at some prices I’ve seen for Fraser firs, which seem to have dropped significantly.”

Tennessee’s Christmas Tree Growers Association estimates sales of state-grown Christmas trees total about $3 million annually.

The U.S. Census of Agriculture listed 246 growers in Tennessee in 1997, the latest figures available. The hard work, shrinking profits and increased competition from other states may push that number downward.

Richard Evans, superintendent of UT’s Forestry Experiment Station at Oak Ridge, is a member of the Mid-South Christmas Tree Growers. He said group membership has dropped as growers have fled the business.

“We used to have about 50 people at our meetings–now there are seven or eight,” Evans said. “It’s just the dynamics of the market, and a lot of folks went out of business.”

Joe Clayton, owner of Country Cove Tree Farm in Murfreesboro and president of the state Christmas Tree Growers Association, said association membership has dropped from more than 80 to about 35 in a few years.

“People get into the Christmas tree business, and by the time they realize how much work it entails, they are no longer interested,” Clayton said.
To gain an edge, more growers are offering farms where customers can pick a tree of their choice.

About a fourth of the 37 million live Christmas trees bought nationwide last year came from choose-and-cut farms, and Tennessee has about 100 such farms, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.

“We are selling not just a Christmas tree, but a tradition and an experience,” said Dr. Eyvind Thor, a former UT forestry professor and owner of Valhalla Tree Farm, a choose-and-cut business in Blount County. “We have customers who were children when they first came here 20 years ago, and now they are bringing their own children.

“It is a family tradition that has developed here. The customers like it, and it has helped keep me in business.”