Maine has lobsters. New York has apples. North Carolina and
Oregon have … Christmas trees?
The two states are the largest producers of real Christmas trees
in the country,
according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In fact, just six counties in the two states accounted for 51
percent of the more than 16 million trees harvested nationwide in
2012, the most recent year government data is available. In all,
North Carolina and Oregon trees constituted 79 percent of that
year's harvest. Industry insiders say the trend hasn't changed.
The country's biggest Christmas tree
provider is Ashe County, a mountainous region in North Carolina
bordering Tennessee and Virginia. Tree farmers in Ashe, population
28,000, harvested nearly 2 million trees in 2012
"It's a critical piece of our local economy," said Travis
Birdsell, a tree farmer in Ashe who estimated that 250 farms are
active in the county. "It's certainly the largest sector."
While Christmas trees farms operate across the country, most
pale in size to those in Oregon and North Carolina, according to
Doug Hundley, a spokesman for the National Christmas Tree
Association. Hundley said that growers in most states operate
choose-and-cut farms, small operations where consumers pick their
own trees to cut.
"They do a little shipping overstate, but nothing like what
Oregon and North Carolina do," Hundley said.
Tom Norby operates the Trout Creek Tree Farm, an 80-acre grove
in unincorporated Multnomah County, Oregon, just north of Clackamas
County and a half-hour's drive east of Portland. Norby attributes
the size of the Christmas tree industry in the two states to
climate and geography.
"Where can you grow trees?" Norby said. "Oregon has a climate
that supports the types of trees you'd want for Christmas trees up
there in the hills. North Carolina does, too. It's all of those
Advocates for live Christmas trees are quick to talk about their
state's signature tree. In Oregon, it's the Noble fir, which has a
blue tint and grows at high altitudes. In North Carolina, it's the
Fraser fir, an evergreen that was the most-harvested tree
nationwide in 2014.
The most common misconception about Christmas trees is that they
come from forests, farmers say. Instead, trees are cultivated for
the specific purpose of being harvested for holiday decor. Farms
come in all sizes, from family-run spare-land operations to
companies with thousands of acres devoted to the stock.
Trees take eight to 10 years to grow to salable size. During
those years the trees must be fertilized, sheared and tended to for
insects and weeds.
"It's a long-term product," said Birdsell, adding that farmers
have a short window. Christmas trees are typically harvested in
November, with Thanksgiving marking the start of the busy
The real Christmas tree industry has faced a tough decade,
farmers told NBC News, as an oversupply of trees planted in the
late 1990s and early 2000s, combined with a slow economy, pressured
farmers to keep costs down. The downturn in sales led them to plant
fewer seedlings, which has resulted in a small crop size for the
While tree prices vary from $25 to $300 based on size, species
and quality, last year the average tree sold for $75, according to
an NCTA survey.
But the industry's biggest threat is from artificial trees.
Hundley said that 75 percent of trees put up in homes in the 2017
holiday season were artificial. This affects farmers in two ways: A
buyer of an artificial tree is likely to hold onto it for years,
thus removing a potential real tree customer from the market. Fewer
tree buyers also leads to farmers planting fewer seedlings, which
leads to constrained stock later on.
"We are selling less real trees than we were 40-50 years ago
despite a major increase in population," Hundley said. "The
artificial tree has bitten severely into this industry."
Graphics sources: USDA / National Christmas Tree
CORRECTION (Dec. 12, 2018, 4:50 p.m.
ET): An earlier version of this article misstated what type of tree
the Fraser fir is. It's a fir tree, not a pine.