Water & Drought

Sacramento-area Christmas tree sales humming along

rbenton@sacbee.com

Kris Gilbert smiled broadly as workers unloaded a fresh supply of Oregon-grown Noble Firs on his Sacramento Christmas tree lot on Friday.

“We’ll probably sell 250 on Saturday and another 250 on Sunday,” said Gilbert, manager of Mikey’s Christmas Tree Land at El Camino and Eastern avenues.

Gilbert quickly added that last week was the “big” weekend, with about 400 trees sold on both Saturday and Sunday.

A random sampling of a half-dozen Christmas tree sellers throughout the Sacramento area reported similarly brisk sales and a mostly steady supply despite the drought. Consumers appear ready to bring some green indoors at the end of a year of browning lawns.

“Our Christmas tree might be the greenest tree in our yard,” said Sacramentan Janet Devine, stopping at Mikey’s to look for a second tree for her mother. “It’s fun to celebrate a little bit after so much bad news about the drought.”

The drought did cost some California tree farms “lots of seedlings and plantings this year,” said Rick Dungey, executive director of the National Christmas Tree Association in Chesterfield, Mo.

While “consumers won’t notice a difference,” it is a fiscal setback for farms that lost product destined for sale, he said.

“This my 18th year, and I can tell you that every single year, there’s a dry summer or too much water or other weather condition that affects tree farms. It can also be deer or bugs or any number of things,” Dungey said, adding: “Farming is a tough business.”

Sam Minturn, executive director of the Hilmar-based California Christmas Tree Association, said he knows of spot drought problems among the association’s 200 members.

“The drought affected some of our members, but I would say the majority no…In California, one guy might have trouble getting water, others do get it,” he said. “We don’t have any farms that I know of that weren’t able to open because of the drought.”

The national and California Christmas tree associations noted that just starting a Christmas tree farm is a five- to seven-year proposition, meaning that weather effects tend to evolve over the long term.

Minturn said the primary reason that Sacramento-area and California consumers won’t notice a difference is that “90 percent of the trees sold in the state do come from Oregon and Washington, and they seem to be doing fine also.”

Even with an established pipeline of Oregon-grown Christmas trees, however, things can go sideways.

Brad Smith, manager of Abel’s Christmas Trees at 7424 Sunrise Blvd., in Citrus Heights, said business this year has been “crazy good,” with sales up more than 10 percent over last year. Problem is, Smith thinks he might sell out of trees this weekend and perhaps close for the season by Monday or Tuesday.

Smith explained that Oregon tree growers he’s worked with don’t have as many trees as they did in years past, a farming development that left him scrambling to meet customer demand this year.

“I feel bad for my customers. They’re very loyal and they love coming here with the atmosphere we have,” Smith said. “I’ll do anything to make my customers happy.”

To that point, in an effort to have as many trees as possible for buyers, Smith this week bought dozens of Christmas trees from the nearby Costco store on Auburn Boulevard in Citrus Heights, paying retail in the process. “If that’s what it takes for my customers, I’ll do it,” he said.

NCTA’s Dungey said that Smith’s situation is not all that unusual.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that what he’s saying is true. It’s a supply-and-demand business, and it depends on the growers you’re working with,” Dungey said. “I know that some (sellers) will call growers in October and say they need more trees, and they’re told that there are no more trees available. We’re all out.”

Right now, Dungey said he’s more concerned about floodwaters impacting tree growers in the Pacific Northwest.

“Like I said, it’s a tough business and there’s always something going on.”

Mark Glover: 916-321-1184, @markhglover

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