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Santa Clara County Christmas tree growers sell only 15% of trees they sold in 1990s

By Doug Ray | 8 Mar 2011

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Christmas tree farms are most prevalent in the Bay Area along the Highway 17 Corridor outside of Los Gatos. (Photo: Doug Ray)

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Santa Clara County is the only place in the South Bay with a climate in certain areas appropriate for growing Christmas trees. But the tree industry’s income has dropped by nearly 75 percent over the past two decades.

While several factors contribute to this sharp decline, the farmers are quick to point their fingers at the relatively recent popularity of artificial Christmas trees.

Santa Clara County statistics show that tree growers now sell only 15% of trees they sold in the early 1990s.

Farmers sold 64,000 trees in 1994, worth an estimated $1.6 million all together. By 2009, these farmers were selling less than 9,000 trees each Christmas season, harvests that were valued at $404,200. (Story Continues Below)

While artificial trees have existed for decades, the availability of cheaper, artificial models made abroad has fundamentally changed the industry. Trying to adapt, today tree farmers in the Santa Cruz Mountains are marketing the experience of allowing customers to cut down their own trees as much as selling the actual product.

Christmas tree farming is by no means the largest agricultural industry in Santa Clara County. But in the hills overlooking Los Gatos, about two dozen farms are growing conifers serving a predominately local market.

Jim Beck owns and operates one of them called Patchen California, located south of Los Gatos. His is one of the larger farms, and he said, “The one issue that has impacted the business over the years is the influx of plastic trees from China, and that’s a slow, a gradual deterioration of the marketplace.”

According to statistics published by the National Christmas Tree Association, a trade association representing tree growers, 85 percent of the artificial Christmas trees sold in the United States are imported from China.

Studies sponsored by the growers’ organization show that nationwide, real trees remain a popular option for consumers, with 28.2 million sold in 2009. However, since 2003, the number of artificial trees sold annually has increased from 9.6 million to 11.7 million.

Jami Warner, executive director of the American Christmas Tree Association, which represents the artificial tree industry, wrote in an email, “A trend we have seen developing over the past few years is the purchase of both a real and an artificial Christmas tree. Both types of trees have their advantages. Real trees smell great, of course, and there will always be consumers whose Christmas traditions include a real tree. Artificial trees, most of which come pre-lit now, can be set up and enjoyed within minutes and are easy to take down and store for next Christmas.”

Warner’s organization, which officially claims to represent both the artificial and real tree industries, reports that artificial tree sales have been growing at a rate of about 7.5 percent annually for the past five years.

The farmers attribute the increasing popularity of the artificial trees to a perceived misunderstanding on the crop’s environmental sustainability. Hans Johsens, who owns the Lone Star Tree Farm outside Los Gatos, said, “Environmental responsibility is another big issue these days, and one that addresses the fake trees. Our trees have no carbon footprint, or even a negative carbon footprint.”

Not surprisingly, each side conveniently ignores parts of its own environmental costs.

Those who advocate on behalf of the artificial tree industry point out that because artificial trees can be used year after year, they are more environmentally sustainable. According to a study commissioned by the artificial tree group, “The most significant contribution to global warming came from fossil fuel consumption in transportation of real Christmas trees from tree farms and lots to consumer homes.”

Often driving to choose-and-cut farms, like those outside Los Gatos, requires even greater amounts of gasoline consumption than going to retailers closer to home.

Johsens, speaking specifically about his business model, noted, “There is no fuel burned in getting our cut-your-own trees to our farms, which is a big issue with pre-cut trees trucked down from Oregon and Washington and an even bigger issue with fake trees which are primarily imported from China and shipped here.”

However, the study by the artificial tree group showed, “Driving out to a tree farm and cutting down a tree is the worst environmental choice you can make when buying a Christmas tree,” adding: “it’s substantially better for the environment to buy a tree from a local retailer rather than to drive out to a farm, due to the incremental fossil fuel consumed.”

Like many of his fellow Christmas tree growers, Johsens encourages his customers to leave several branches on the stump, which keeps the tree from dying. Johsens said, “We culture a new tree from those branches that will be ready to be cut again in a shorter period of time than if we planted new seedlings every year.” This can shed two or three years from the time it takes for new trees to grow from seed.

Johsens added, “Its not as if you are going out there and cutting down a 1,000 year old redwood to make a house out of it.”

Greg Lahann, who owns Four Winds Christmas Trees also outside Los Gatos, said, “It is much better for the environment to get a local renewable fresh tree that converts CO2 to oxygen, than to pull that plastic, Chinese made ‘tree’ out of the attic.”

Real trees are also seen as a fire hazard. The artificial tree group notes, “When showcasing a live tree in your home, the combination of tree dryness, electrical malfunction with lights and poorly located heating sources can make for a deadly combination.”

Johsens believes that it is in fact the other way around. “Fake trees are far, far more susceptible to fire danger than a real tree that has been properly cared for and watered,” he said. “Fake trees are far more dangerous in this aspect as when the fake tree is burned, highly toxic gasses are emitted as a result.”

Despite the steep decline in the area’s Christmas tree growing industry area, Santa Clara’s Division of Agriculture reports that the county’s larger agriculture industry is stable. Michelle Thom, Deputy Agricultural Commissioner in Santa Clara County, wrote in an email, “Our overall agricultural industry has been holding steady over the last few years.”

She added, “There are natural fluctuations with the value of certain crops, and we don’t track specific reasons why a certain crop will fluctuate over time. There are just too many variables that affect the market.” (Story Continues Below)

Meet some of the farmers

The area’s earliest Christmas tree farms were established in the late 30s and early 40s, and the industry boomed in the 1960s as local communities expanded — increasing the need for trees. The population has continued to swell, increasing 18 percent since 1990, but now the industry is in decline.

The farms outside of Los Gatos are small — few are larger than 30 acres — and independently owned and operated. They usually sell the trees from Thanksgiving through Christmas. Customers drive up to the hills to cut down their own Christmas tree as opposed to buying one pre-cut from a different tree seller closer to home.

Despite such a high concentration of farms in such a small area, the farmers say they don’t really compete with each other. Johsens said, “We do share a good camaraderie with our fellow Christmas tree farmers, both here in our community and as an industry, and farmers locally will happily direct a customer to a neighboring farm in order to ensure customer satisfaction.”

As it turns out, the corridor surrounding California Highway 17, which connects Los Gatos and Santa Cruz, represents one of the few places in the region where Christmas trees can be grown successfully. Lahann said, “At about 2,500 feet altitude, we are at a good elevation for Douglas Fir which is native to the area and the most popularly grown tree here.” He added, “I would guess overall that 75 percent of the Christmas trees grown in this area are Douglas Fir.”

Matt Beauregard, an Agricultural Biologist with Santa Clara County, said, “Operating a Christmas tree farm on their large property allows the property owner to qualify for the Williamson Act, which helps greatly reduce property taxes for properties who qualify by use of property in agricultural activity such as a Christmas tree farm.”

Beck noted that most other agricultural areas in the Bay Area are not nearly as well suited for Christmas tree production.

“If you look at the Bay Area, there is very little going on in the East Bay because those hills are so dry and barren,” he said. “You would have to irrigate if you wanted to raise trees over there, and that is not practical By far the most popular” area “is the Highway 17 corridor.”

While much has changed for the Christmas tree industry in the hills above Los Gatos, the farmers claim to be seeing some signs of growth. Lahann said, “My guess is that ‘choose-and cut’-trees are becoming more popular because in a tough economy, people are tending to celebrate Christmas in a less extravagant and more family friendly way.”

“While it’s certainly more labor intensive than setting up a Chinese-made artificial tree,” he added, “Spending half a day with the kids hiking through the woods looking for the perfect tree that you cut yourself is a great way to do that.”

While several ‘choose and cut’ Christmas tree farms can be found in the Bay Area, the largest single concentration is in the hills south of Los Gatos

View ‘Choose and Cut’ Christmas Tree Farms in the Bay Area in a larger map

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