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Christmas tree shortage shows no sign of easing

Trees at Plow Farms in Berks County are too young to be harvested.
Trees at Plow Farms in Berks County are too young to be harvested.

Christmas trees are hard to come by in some parts of Pennsylvania this year, and officials say the shortage is unlikely to be resolved any time soon. The shortage results from the aftereffects of the Great Recession, and it could be years before supply catches up to demand.

Many of the Lehigh Valley's tree farms already have run out of trees and closed for the season. At least half a dozen tree farms in Northampton County were out of trees by the first Monday in December.

Deer Run Tree Farms in Upper Mt. Bethel Township closed Nov. 27 — three days after it opened.

“I would say we were about 2,000 [trees] short,” said Roger Unangst, who runs Unangst Tree Farms near East Allen Township. “That's an educated guess”

This winter isn’t the first that the distinctive firs are hard to come by, as demand for fresh-cut trees stays well above pre-pandemic levels but supply lags years behind.

It’s unlikely to be the last.

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Supply and Demand

Several Northampton County growers have said the current shortage has its roots in the Great Recession, when people bought fewer live Christmas trees. It takes up to 10 years to raise a tree, and just as long for the supply side of the evergreen economy to catch up with changing demand.

“The recession of ‘09, it affected the industry,” said David Beck, who runs Beck’s Christmas Trees in Upper Mt. Bethel Township. “There's been a contraction.”

“For many years, business was not real good,” said Ken Faust, owner of Hidden Pines Farm in Moore Township. “Everyone was overplanted, and we burned tens of thousands of dollars of trees.”

“That's a very expensive business after you’ve maintained them for 10 years,” Faust said. “You get very concerned about it and cut back on your planting.”

Unangst and Beck agreed.

“The farmers weren't planting quite what they were [before the recession], because they were coming out of a glut and they didn't wanna get stuck with too many trees,” Unangst said.

Beck said, “There was an oversupply of trees up until about, I wanna say three years ago. And then it flipped."

The coronavirus pandemic energized demand for the trees. Suddenly, the lean plantings of the post-recession era weren’t enough to keep up.

At the same time, prices have risen for consumers, which is common in times of low supply.

Growers such as Unangst — who said he raised prices $5 per tree this year — said the markup isn’t enough to cover how much his costs, from fertilizer to diesel fuel, increased.

“We can't price ourselves out of the market,” he said. “I mean, you're always competing with the artificial tree. So a lot of those costs we're sort of eating.”

A September survey conducted by trade group the Real Christmas Tree Board found that 98% of the wholesale growers who responded planned to raise prices this year.

It’s tricky for farmers, who have to try and predict demand well in advance.

“It's hard. It's guesswork. It really is,” Unangst said.

“You need a crystal ball,” Faust said.

A few years to go

Farmers said the only way to increase Christmas tree supply is to have planted more trees eight to 10 years ago. As long as demand stays high, the only solution to the shortage is to wait.

Growers started planting more trees when the shortage began a few years ago. And Beck said it's "going to be a couple more years yet until supply gets back in line with demand."

“We're three years out, four years, five years out of getting out of this," Unangst said. "The light is at the end of the tunnel, but the tunnel's a really long tunnel.”

Of course, if farmers respond to the shortage by planting more, and something happens to decrease demand, they will be back where they were in the early twenty-teens, destroying thousands of dollars worth of crops.