ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. -- Expect to pay more if you're buying a real Christmas tree this year.
So says Glenn Lightsey. He and his wife, Vivian, have been selling Christmas trees since 1977, but in one respect, this, their 41st season is the toughest.
"Absolutely," Lightsey said, talking about the supply of trees available on the market. "My grower even told me I'd be very fortunate to get the trees that I've requested."
Lightsey and others in the business tell First Coast News there are no major growers in Florida, and most of the trees sold east of the Mississippi River are farmed in North Carolina. He says the currently tight market will mean higher prices and slimmer selection.
"It doesn't matter where you get your tree. There's going to be a shortage," he said.
Lightsey's vending tent is at the corner of U.S. 1 and King Street in St. Augustine, a location he's used about five years now. But others in the industry are echoing the same story.
"It takes about ten years to grow a Frasier fir, and until that 10-year cycle catches back up, tree prices won't be coming back down," said George Harrington of Holiday's Christmas Trees, which has several locations along the First Coast. Harrington is hinting at the root cause of the current shortage: the recession from 2007 to 2009.
"People were just going out of business. The supply was so high and the demand was low," he said.
"People were practically giving [Christmas trees] away," Lightsey concurs. Both men say when the bottom dropped out, it caused a metaphoric clear-cutting of the industry that led to a sharp drop in production.
"Obviously that left quite a hole in the supply," Harrington said. "and so as years went on the supply is getting tighter and tighter."
Perhaps less obvious is the possible secondary blow to the industry if current high prices drive consumers - even purists - to buy artificial trees.
"Fake trees, they're nice, but you don't get the smell and the real feel of a Christmas tree," said Blair Corbin of St. Augustine while perusing the inventory at Lightsey's with his wife and daughters. But even Corbin says that, like a tree, he could be swayed.
"If you're paying twice as much for the tree, you'd have to resort to buying the fake tree, probably."
The National Christmas Tree Association tells First Coast News that prices in 2017 compared to last year shouldn't be up more than about 10 percent, but Lightsey pegs the spike much higher, at 20-25 percent. Various sources say prices of naturally grown trees have climbed roughly 10 percent each of the last five years, a trend that's expected to continue as long as the public has discretionary dollars and tree supplies remain trimmed.
"Probably for about the next two or three years," Harrington said,"Until that cycle kind of catches back up."
Lightsey, meanwhile, points out that Mother Nature can't be hurried any more than economic cycles.
"Growers don't want to cut that three- and four-foot tree and that five- and six-foot tree because they know that within another year or two, that tree will be up - six, seven ... eight [feet tall], and they can almost double their money on the wholesale end," he said.
Doug Hundley at the National Christmas Tree Association isn't panicked.
"We are confident that everybody looking for a live tree will be able to find one that works for them and their family," he tells First Coast News. "It's just a matter of maybe shopping a little earlier."
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