Oregon tree growers hit early troubles
Overplanting, high fuel prices, and labor and shipping shortages burn the industry
ESTACADA, Ore. » The Christmas tree harvest season in Oregon is off to a rocky start, with farmers' profits being clipped because of a surplus caused by overplanting.
The industry has also been burned by high fuel prices, and there is a shortage of available labor to help cut and pack the firs.
Growers are also facing a potential shortage of trucks to deliver trees to out-of-state buyers, a potentially serious problem given that 90 percent of the Oregon harvest is shipped out of state, including Hawaii.
Growers who ship to Hawaii, Japan and other offshore markets began harvesting in late October. Some have found delays in getting truckers to haul containers to Puget Sound and Northern California ports.
"There are fewer long-haul trucking companies, and trucks are tied up with the hurricane damage in the South," Joe Sharp, owner of Yule Tree Farms south of Canby, told the Oregonian.
Oregon is the leading producer of natural Christmas trees, supplying about one-fourth of the estimated 27.1 million retailed nationwide last year.
But last year, sales by growers in the rest of the nation increased about 15 percent last year. Oregon farmers did not share in the gains.
"We were a soft spot," said Bryan Ostlund, executive director of the Salem-based Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association.
Ostlund predicted Oregon growers will cut 7.3 million trees this season, about the same as last year. Only five years ago, he estimated the harvest at 8.5 million trees. No one keeps a close count.
A survey taken in mid-2004 for the growers association by the Oregon Agricultural Statistics Service predicted a big supply glut within three or four years unless more consumers were persuaded to buy Oregon trees. Otherwise, the surplus could reach 3 million to 4 million trees, the survey warned.
Stan Low, a Beavercreek area grower and past president of the growers association, said prices for Douglas and noble firs are softer this year. Farmers are getting $6.50 to $14 for various grades of 6- to 7-foot Douglas firs and $14 to $27 for the same size noble firs, he said. That is $3 to $4 less than last year for Douglas firs and $4 to $6 less for nobles.
Corvallis-based Holiday Tree Farm, the state's biggest with 6,500 acres in three counties, will harvest 1 million firs this season, about the same as last year, according to co-owner John Schudel.
While growers or their customers are paying more for trucking, he predicted most consumers will not see the costs added to retail prices.