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The 20 days of Christmas

Window for U-Cut growers is narrow, but tree enthusiasts keep Oregon industry humming
by: Chase Allgood Kenn Parry waited for last-minute Christmas tree customers to show up to his tree lot near Forest Grove Monday afternoon.

It's a time-honored Oregon tradition each December. Suit the kids up in rain boots and parkas, pack them into the trusty minivan and hit the road for the tree lot. With saw in hand, families meander through rows of Douglas and Noble firs, looking for the tree least likely to star in 'A Charlie Brown Christmas.'

But the muddy flats of Oregon's U-Cut tree lots aren't just a fun yuletime diversion. They're big business in Oregon, the nation's leading producer of Christmas trees. According to state data, Oregon growers cut and sold almost 7.3 million in 2008, adding about $110.1 million to the state's economy.

The industry continues to be a major one, ranking ninth among Oregon's top agricultural commodities - and the northwest corner of the state is a particularly lucrative spot for Christmas tree producers.

Clackamas County is the number-one producing county, selling 2.4 million Christmas trees in 2008. Washington County also stands as a major contributor. In 2008, Washington County growers sold 161,000 trees, with 2,800 acres dedicated to the crop. Overall, Oregon accounted for 42 percent of the nation's Christmas tree crop in 2008.

Kenn Parry owns and operates Parry's Tree Farm near the peak of David Hill just north of the Forest Grove city limits. Parry grows about 14,000 trees on 12 acres. He started by planting three acres of trees 28 years ago, when he decided to make his dream a reality.

'Happy this time of year'

A retired forester, Parry replaced the plum trees that once grew on his land with a variety of fir trees, because he 'always wanted to tree farm.'

'Seeing the kids come out and seeing them happy is really gratifying. Everybody is happy this time of year for the most part,' Parry said.

Roughly a quarter of Americans cut their own Christmas tree instead of picking a pre-cut tree up from a lot or retailer, according to data compiled by the National Christmas Tree Association.

And a brisk business at Parry's Christmas tree farm helped put his children through college. Even after almost three decades, tree season is still his favorite.

Still, the business is not without its hardships. Parry prepares all year for the 20-day Christmas selling season by spraying, trimming, planting, cutting out old stumps, advertising, making wreaths and setting up road signs.

'You make it or break it in 20 days,' said Parry. 'You definitely have to diversify your income.' Parry said his love of trees is what keeps him in the business.

But with the recession hanging on, Parry estimates his sales are down about 20 percent this year.

Prices falling

Tree prices have been steadily falling the last few years. In 2003, the average tree price in Oregon was $17.06. By 2008, it had dropped to $15.01.

Parry attributes his loss of business to pre-cut tree lots and fake trees. From 2005 to 2008, the number of Christmas trees sold in Washington County dropped by 79,000 and the profit fell by $1.4 million.

Troy South, a third-generation Christmas tree farmer in Scappoose, seems a little more optimistic. He thinks things are looking up for the industry.

South owns and operates Christmas Mountain Tree Farm with his wife and children. With about 100,000 Christmas trees growing on 100 acres, South and his family dedicate a lot of time and effort to a business with a 'payday that comes once a year.'

The Souths started the U-cut part of their business - complete with wreath-selling and wagon rides - five years ago in an attempt to adapt to the changing market of Christmas trees.

The Souths don't rely solely on their U-cut business, however. They are also wholesale growers, and ship a large portion of their trees all across the country.

California is the number-one destination for Oregon grown Christmas trees, followed by Mexico. In 2009, Christmas trees worth $19.2 million were exported from Oregon.

That export industry also spurs jobs here in the state.

Both Parry and South hire temporary workers for the busy season. Parry hires six crew members to sell trees during the weekends and two to handle sales during the week. It is estimated that the Christmas tree industry employed 7,422 seasonal workers in Oregon in 2008.

Jan Hedburg, lead horticulturist for the Oregon Department of Agriculture's Nursery Tree and Inspection Program, said he anticipates good things to come concerning the formalized regulations for Christmas tree growers in effect this year. The regulations are designed to prevent the spread of pests, such as slugs and yellowjackets, and diseases, such as sudden oak death, to other states and countries.

But according to Hedburg, Oregon doesn't have a big problem with 'hitch-hiking' bugs or pestilence.

Oregon law requires exporters to obtain a shipping permit and attest that they've met the requirements of the destination country or state. The regulations can add to the cost for tree growers, but Hedburg said growers are very inventive and things are going smoothly.

One piece of policy working in tree exporters' favor is a decision by the Mexican government to lift a tariff, in place since 2009, targeting Oregon apples, pears and Christmas trees.

Even so, soft demand has led to a drop in prices for trees.

In the last few years, 'pricing has not been the most desirable,' said South. 'But this year is better than previous years. I think we're seeing a turnaround.'

According to South, there has been an oversupply of Noble firs on the market. But he said he thinks the industry's growers are seeing the tail end of that.

Hedburg agreed. He said tree growers overplanted and then the economic downturn hit, adding reduced demand to an already overabundant supply.

South said he thinks the recession has had 'a profound effect' on his business, but that isn't the only challenge a Christmas tree grower faces. Trees are sensitive to weather conditions and various pests, and since it takes about eight years for most types of popular Christmas trees - unless it's a Douglas fir, which grows at a slightly faster pace - to reach harvest height, a lot can happen in that time.

'One never knows what's coming their way,' South laughed.

Real trees 'a good choice'

Despite factors out of his control, South enjoys running his Christmas tree farm and wouldn't mind if his children decided to take it over one day.

In addition, 'real trees are a good choice,' said South, referring to environmental impact. According to South, the trees are cut and replanted every year.

'It's not like we cut them out of a forest,' South said. Not only that, they are a renewable resource.

'It's not like the fake plastic trees that often end up in a landfill,' South said.

Where to find trees

Parry's Tree Farm is located at 45627 NW and #8200;David Hill Road just north of Forest Grove. The U-Cut operation is open from 8 a.m. to dark through Saturday, Dec. 24. To reach Kenn Parry at the farm, call 503-348-9601.