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Christmas tree business still growing in Clay – along with the prices

By Lee Wardlaw lee@claytodayonline.com
Posted 12/7/22

CLAY COUNTY – When the calendar turns from November to December each year in Clay County, Florida, that means trading focus from Thanksgiving turkey to Christmas trees.

That oftentimes means …

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Christmas tree business still growing in Clay – along with the prices


CLAY COUNTY – When the calendar turns from November to December each year in Clay County, Florida, that means trading focus from Thanksgiving turkey to Christmas trees.

That oftentimes means purchasing a live tree for the entire household to enjoy.

For residents, there are plenty of locations available to purchase your next tree, whether that be a local dealer like Songer’s Christmas Trees, Cree’s Tree’s, or Severts Tree Farm, or large national retailers such as Ace Hardware, Lowe’s or Home Depot.

With Christmas Day being right around the corner, Clay Today has taken a closer look into the ever-important holiday season industry in the county this year, delving into issues such as tree prices after supply chain costs and gasoline prices, availability and whether demand for the national holiday home staple has risen.

Brian Cree, owner of Cree’s Trees behind the Marathon Gas Station at 3138 County Road 220 in Middleburg, has been in the Christmas tree farming industry for over 40 years.

As a boy, his father would give Brian and his brother 30-40 trees to sell from their front yard in New York, with Santa’s favorite shrubs being freshly grown at his now-late old man’s operation in New Hampshire, a 300-acre, 10,000-15,000 tree operation.

Cree has been selling trees in the county for nine years.

With trees for customers on the east coast typically being shipped in from North Carolina and other far-reaching northern states like New York, New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine, Cree said that the economic recession and rising fuel costs have resulted in increased supply chain costs to ship the trees, resulting in a 10% increase for the price to purchase a small tree (4-8 feet) and 20-30% for a large tree (9-13 feet) compared to last year.

“Everything has gone up with inflation. The farming is getting more expensive, labor is becoming more expensive and harder to find, and then there’s fuel,” he said.

One major factor for the increasing rate of farming: is short-term farms clear-cutting trees measuring between 5-8 feet, selling those to dealers and never looking back.

“A few years ago, there was a big rush with the box stores buying out everything. They started clear-cutting those farms and they went out of business after that,” Cree said.

Cree said that clear-cutting took place in all major Christmas tree farming areas in the United States.

“(Buyers) would purchase those trees for one price, and then, those farms never replenished,” he said.

Availability of Christmas trees has been continually dwindling across the market, according to Cree.

“(Availability) has become less and less. Three years ago, my farm wasn’t able to get anything taller than eight feet,” he said.

Thus, Cree pivoted, switching from one farm to another in Western North Carolina.

Nevertheless, sales have remained steady.

“Sales have been about where they’ve been in the past. I have my regular customers that come in every year that are going to put up a real tree,” Cree said.

One reason for this could be the affordable rates offered at Cree’s Trees, which range between $50-200 for all sizes.

In light of rising costs, the small business owner will do whatever it takes to keep costs affordable for his loyal, local customers.

“I try to absorb some of the costs by hauling the trees myself and also working the lot solo for most of the season. This helps me keep my prices reasonable,” he said.

Cree doesn't know where the industry could be heading, and he doesn't often speak with competing tree lot owners.

Despite all of the issues, Cree expects a similar return on his investment this holiday season. “(The supply chain and economy issues) haven't really affected me much this year, but I’ve only been open for a week. I’m not going to know until the end, but it’s on track for where I usually finish,” he said.

There are a few differences between private lots and large retailers and that starts with the prices, according to Brian Rau, merchandising manager at Lowe’s Home Improvement’s Orange Park location at 2285 Kingsley Ave.

“Our’s range from the mid-$50s for smaller trees to the $120 range for a 9–10-foot tree. I heard that some private lots were charging $200 for the same size. That’s what I’m hearing from customers, at least,” he said.

On the other hand, their availability of trees saw some earlier interruptions due to supply chain issues, but that’s not the case anymore, according to Rau.

“I had a half-full tree tent, and now, I’m bursting at the seams. I don’t have a single corral in my tree tent that’s not bursting with trees at the seams. At this point, I’m ready for anybody to come down here,” Rau said.

However, that didn’t come without earlier struggles.

“I know they had to figure out the logistics for a lot of that. I think a lot of (the issues) were due to a COVID lag with trucking and the availability of drivers to get the trees down here. That has been a challenge, but we’ve rebounded off of that,” he said.

“I didn’t have (as many trees) as I probably would have had around November 17th or 18th as I did last year or the year prior. We did get the full shipment of trees, but it just took a little bit longer. They were pulling some of our shipments that we were supposed to get, but we moved all of those forward and were able to figure out how to get the trucks here,” Rau said.

The vast majority of their trees are shipped in from Canada, Rau said.

Rau received his last shipment of trees on Nov. 25, and now, with a fully-stocked supply, business is back to usual for Lowe’s.

Songer’s Tree Farm, located at 5255 Carter Spencer Rd. in Middleburg, is not dealing with supply chain issues, as all trees are grown onsite. Prices range from $31.95-$111.95 from under 5 feet to a maximum of 12 feet, with each additional half foot costing customers an additional $7.

Due to a limited crop in 2022, Songer’s already has ended this year’s sale. He said there’s no guarantee that the farm will return to business during next year’s holiday season.