Miamians are feeling the effects of a national Christmas tree shortage as they scramble to find a shapely specimen and worry they may have to settle for a scrawny Charlie Brown version
“Customers are panicking, and when they come in here they say, ‘Thank God we found you,’ ” said Chris Winkler, who runs Holiday Sales. Two of his three locations — 8445 SW 72nd Ave. and 8200 SW 104th St. — are still open with 500 trees each, which he expects to last through the weekend. “I’ve got everything from 4 to 17 feet tall. I spent a lot of sleepless nights this year tracking down farmers with nice trees. They are in short supply.”
Other popular spots ran out of trees and closed last week. The Boys & Girls Club sold out of its 5,000 trees about six days earlier than it usually does, and the big tent on U.S. 1 has gone from aromatically festive to totally deserted.
“Our sales went really well and really fast,” said Alex Rodriguez-Roig, president of the organization. “The quality of the premium trees was as good as ever but there just aren’t enough of them.”
High demand for trees, especially the Fraser firs that dominate the South Florida market, has pushed prices up 10 to 15 percent.
Anthony Martinez, who runs Santa’s Garden, is selling more concolor or white fir trees this year because his suppliers — and he had to call 30 of them — couldn’t fill his usual order for 4,000 Frasers.
“The concolor actually has a better shape and once you decorate them it’s hard to tell which is which,” said Martinez, who has plenty of trees at the main location of the seven in Miami run by his family at 10901 Coral Way.
The tree shortage originated during the Great Recession in 2007 when demand was low and farmers didn’t have room to plant new trees. It takes up to 10 years to grow a Christmas tree. Consequently, a lack of supply that began in 2015 has hit home in 2017 and is expected to linger for two or three more years.
Another reason for the shortage is that some of the thousands of small farmers who grow the nation’s 27.4 million Christmas trees each year left the $2 billion industry when lagging prices from 2000 to 2015 failed to keep pace with increasing production costs. In Oregon, which grows 30 percent of the nation’s trees, some farmers have converted to a more profitable crop — cannabis.
“Tree growers quit the business because of the economics or their kids who inherited the family farms decided there wasn’t enough money in it,” said Doug Hundley, spokesman for the National Christmas Tree Association. “In North Carolina — the second largest exporter, which supplies 20 percent of the trees — it’s very labor intensive. They hand plant, hand grow and hand harvest. The price of labor has gone up significantly.
“But the imbalance is working itself out, we are seven years into re-establishing the crop and we hope people will be patient with fewer trees to choose from for the next couple years as we come to the end of this tight market.”
The average price of a tree was $74.70 in 2016 and is up to $82 this year compared to the $98.70 average price for an artificial tree. Last year, 18.6 million artificial trees were sold in the U.S.
“You don’t want to price your natural tree too high or you lose the customer to a fake tree,” Hundley said. “If you buy a real tree, you’re supporting North American farmers raising an environmentally friendly crop. If you buy fake trees, you’re supporting a Chinese industry.”
Unsuccessful tree hunters could go native this season and decorate an areca palm instead. Or deck the halls with boughs of bougainvillea. Or give in to buying an artificial tree and having a very synthetic Christmas.
Annia Gayoso and her children were relieved to find a six-foot Fraser fir at the Messiah Lutheran Church, 9850 SW 24th St., another Santa’s Garden location.
“I’ve been coming here for the past couple years because they usually run out at Home Depot and Publix,” Gayoso said. “I tend to buy at the last minute and they always have good trees here, although they are more expensive this year.”
Johnny Martinez, who supervises the lot and donates some of the profits to the church, where he is a member, said his tree purchase costs are up 12 percent and shipping costs are up 5 percent.
“A cheap tree is going to cost you $40-$50 and a quality tree up to eight feet is going to cost you $75-$100,” he said. “My father used to sell different varieties — blue spruce, Scotch pine — but the Fraser fir has become the preferred tree in Miami.”
The scene at the two Santa’s Garden locations on Wednesday was mellow compared to the chaotic one at the Coconut Grove Home Depot on Tuesday night, when a new shipment of trees ran out quickly and customers grabbed whatever they could get their hands on.