Americans turn to smaller, wilder Christmas trees

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A Christmas tree lies in a cart at Ridgefield Farm in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, Dec. 9, 2012. Tree growers report growing demand among consumers for smaller and more natural looking trees. AFP/ROBERT MACPHERSON

HARPER’S FERRY, West Virginia—It’s short. It’s scruffy. It’s practically anorexic. And this season, the Charlie Brown Christmas tree is a shining star in Alan Gibson’s tree farm.

The cut-priced coniferous outlier among the noble balsam, concolor and Douglas firs at Ridgefield Farm and Orchard symbolizes a growing American preference for shorter, wilder Christmas trees.

“I don’t know if it’s a thing about the economy or if it’s just that people don’t want a perfect tree,” Gibson told AFP on his 33-acre (13 hectare) spread, where customers are invited to pick and cut their own trees.

“But they’re happy with kind of a fun tree” like the Charlie Brown, named after the comic-strip character who turns a scrawny little tree into a majestic thing of beauty in the beloved TV special “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

About one in four US households have real Christmas trees, which average in price around $50 each, according to industry research. Other homes opt for metal-and-plastic artificial trees, usually imported from China.

What’s caught the attention of real-tree growers are the buying preferences of so-called Millennial consumers – those in their 20s and early 30s – when the holidays come around.

“We sell a lot of five- and four-foot (1.5 and 1.2 meter) trees,” ideal for small apartments, said Maryland farmer Matt Harsh at his outdoor stall in Washington’s gentrifying Columbia Heights neighborhood.

The inner-city market for big trees is so small that Harsh has taken to shortening tall trees from their base, using the remnants to make decorative Yuletide wreaths, he told AFP.

“That tree over there?” he said, pointing to a Fraser fir. “Yesterday he was probably nine feet. We just cut off a bit of it – and now we’ve got a tree that we can sell.”

Rick Dungey of the National Christmas Tree Association, which represents real-tree growers, said Millennials are “really the focus of the industry now,” as they start families and establish their own Christmas traditions.

“There are more people looking for something other than the typical seven-foot tree that’s cut at an 80 percent taper,” he told AFP.

The catch is that it takes more than a decade for a seedling to grow into a full-sized tree, and the real-tree industry “is unfortunately not a quick-response one,” he said.

Out at Ridgefield Farm, an hour’s drive from Washington, cold and drizzle on a Sunday morning failed to deter Jerry and Ellen Simmons and their five-year-old son Jackson from selecting and felling their Christmas tree.

“I think this is going to do it,” said Jerry Simmons, a librarian from the Washington area, as he got down on his knees and put the handsaw to a balsam fir that is narrower than normal, and will fit in their living room.

“I like it when you have something that looks a little bit less groomed,” he said. “Some of the farms you go to have shaped (their trees) into perfect cones, and that’s just not a natural way for a tree to grow.”

“Plus, a natural tree looks prettier and smells nice,” and can be recycled into mulch or compost after New Year’s Day, Ellen Simmons said.

Harper’s Ferry resident Michelle Smith opted for a short tree not much bigger than her seven-year-old daughter Dina.

“We don’t want a real big one this year,” the young mother said as she tugged the green tree on a little cart to her car. “We always had big trees. We wanted to change this year.”

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