Christmas heats up in summer for nation's 'real tree' growers

ARLINGTON, Va. — It was 90-plus degrees outside, but there was a distinctly wintry feel in the second-floor lobby of a hotel overlooking the Potomac River.

Perhaps it was the rows of Christmas trees, standing tall and straight as tin soldiers. Or maybe the wreaths displayed on stands, like perfect leafy doughnuts, or the velvet bows and sparkly ribbons.

The only thing missing was Santa Claus.

The height of summer might seem a strange time for this event, but there is method in the apparent madness of the annual gathering of the National Christmas Tree Assn.

It gives tree growers a chance to swap ideas on how to confront some of their biggest challenges, such as the popularity of fake trees — "permanent trees," as folks here call them. It offers vendors the chance to find buyers for everything from color-enhanced trees — yes, some are painted — to tree stands.

It also determines which of the firs, spruces and cypresses on display in the lobby will be crowned "grand champion," an honor that guarantees its grower a visit to the White House to present First Lady Michelle Obama with the official Blue Room tree. The runner-up is known as the "grand reserve," and its grower gives a tree to the vice president.

"It's a very big deal," Vicki Smith said. "It's sort of like the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show for Christmas trees."

Smith was one of about 125 people who gathered in mid-August at a hotel in Arlington for the meeting, which drew people from Washington state to New York, and at least one grower from Guatemala. Some, like Carlos and Sherrie Taylor, who farm several hundred acres in Elk Creek, Va., came primarily to compete in the tree and wreath contests.

Carlos Taylor was confident his Fraser fir would be named grand champion, until he saw the blue spruce going up next to it.

"It shines," he said, gazing in admiration at the competitor, whose bluish-green needles did indeed seem to glow.

"It's a real pretty tree," Sherrie said, nodding.

Others, like Smith, were here to do business. She sells tree stands, made of recyclable plastic, that attach to the tree trunks — or "handles," as they are known here — and can be tossed with the tree at season's end.

Whatever their reasons for attending, everyone shared a concern for the future of the real-tree industry, which has been buffeted by the economy, demographic changes and what tree growers say is a misguided notion among consumers that fake trees are more environmentally friendly.

"It's a continual fight, trying to get Americans to appreciate the virtues of a real tree as opposed to a fake tree made in another country of fake materials that are going to end up in a landfill," said Chris Maciborski, a grower from Manton, Mich.

The National Christmas Tree Assn. was formed in the 1950s to combat the rise of fake trees.

In 1966, the tradition of presenting a tree to the first lady — that year it was Lady Bird Johnson — began. Americans were returning to real trees, in part because of the example set by the White House and in part because of the popularity of "A Charlie Brown Christmas," the 1965 television special that presented an endearing vision of real trees and poked fun at the fake ones.

But lately, the popularity of real trees has suffered, with the number sold dropping 20% between 2011 and 2012, said Stan Pohmer, an industry marketing expert. Of households displaying Christmas trees last year, 56% had "permanent trees" and 17% real trees.

Pohmer blames the changes on several factors. Families have cut back on discretionary spending. More people are moving into urban areas or downsizing their homes, and they are less likely to display trees. The country's increasingly multiethnic makeup means a growth in populations that don't celebrate Christmas.

And those ghastly fake trees aren't as ghastly as they used to be.

"It used to be they were ugly. But they've gotten a lot nicer," Pohmer told growers at the two-day meeting.

One way that the association hopes to beat back the competition is with federal help by way of proposed legislation that would require large growers to pay 15 cents per tree sold to fund a "real tree" campaign.

Pohmer, though, said the industry couldn't count on laws to boost its fortunes.

"You can't just be a grower anymore," he lectured the crowd, asking how many had social media profiles for their businesses. About half the people in the room raised their hands.

Not to say the industry can't adapt.

Tree growers have begun producing more 6- to 8-foot trees to fit apartments, and they have met consumer demand for trees that don't lose their needles quickly and have branches that are soft to the touch. Some wreath manufacturers dip their products into a solution to help them hold their moisture.

No such help is permitted in the association's tree and wreath competitions, which have strict rules.

Carlos and Sherrie Taylor, who had entered both contests, won a red ribbon for their decorated wreath, a leafy tribute to U.S. military troops featuring red, white and blue ribbons and pictures of soldiers.

Joe Freeman, a grower from North Carolina, took first place in the wreath contest. Freeman credited his success to his sparkly yet understated bow, and to the red berries and barely visible little red bird tucked amid the foliage.

It was a far cry from his earlier, more lavish attempts, which have included a seashell-themed wreath decorated with sand dollars, and another one with white doves.

"Different people have different tastes," he said.

Then it was time to announce the grand champion of trees.

As they expected, the Taylors were shut out by the blue spruce, which John C. Wyckoff had plucked from his farm in Belvidere, N.J.

"It's an eye-catcher," Wyckoff, his eyes misty, said of his tree, which began as a seed planted 12 years ago on a family farm started in 1839. As competitors crowded round, snapping his picture and congratulating him, Wyckoff struggled to explain what makes a winning tree.

"You've gotta look for the wow factor," he said. "The color, the shape, the height."

The Taylors' Fraser fir came in second.

By the next morning, the trees and wreaths had been removed from the lobby. Most were on their way to becoming mulch, but not Wyckoff's. He was driving his blue spruce back to New Jersey to have a family picture taken with it before it succumbed to the scorching summer heat. Then it would be time to begin nurturing a tree for the Blue Room.

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