Published December 3rd, 2020 at 6:00 AM
PLEASANT HILL, MO. — Rolling green hills lined with conifers welcome guests when they visit Pumpkins and Pines, a Christmas tree farm outside of Pleasant Hill, Missouri.
On Tuesday afternoon, there are a couple of families wandering around picking what is left of the appropriately sized trees to have in their homes this holiday season.
Most years, families would have another couple of days to come and shop for trees, but Mike Haffner, the owner of the farm, was closing up shop for the season. He was almost out of stock.
“People are coming earlier and earlier in the season,” Haffner said. “What it has done is concentrate our season.”
Pumpkins and Pines isn’t the only tree farm closed early this year. Bierman’s Christmas Tree Farm sold out before the end of November, and Cedar Valley Forest isn’t selling Christmas trees at all this year.
The hot market for Christmas trees is yet another manifestation of how the COVID-19 pandemic has altered our lives. With more people spending time at home, real Christmas tree demand is higher than normal, and people are sparing no time to go out and get their trees.
Haffner says that the increase in demand has come mainly from families in their 30s and 40s who are starting a brand new family tradition. That target demographic has been the focus of social media campaigns and advertising for the farm.
For Nate and Leah Fry, who were buying a tree at Pumpkins and Pines on Tuesday, it’s about keeping old traditions alive.
“My family did it ever since I was little,” Leah said. “I can remember coming and playing hide and seek in the trees.”
This is the young couple’s fourth year coming and picking out a real tree. They cited the smell and feeling of having a real tree as the practical reasons to keep getting a real tree for their home around the holidays.
Warmer temperatures nearly a decade ago also are affecting the Christmas tree market today. Evergreen conifers typically take 7-10 years to grow to a full sized Christmas tree. Droughts back in 2011 and 2012 have affected the supply of Christmas trees now.
Despite early buyers and the long-term effects of drought on supply, there is not quite a shortage, at least not yet.
According to the National Christmas Tree Association, there has never been a season in which people were unable to find a Christmas tree.
Pumpkins and Pines has been able to dodge the drought problem for the most part, due to the fact that they are one of the few farms that irrigates their trees. Irrigation also shortens the growth timeline from 7-10 years to about 5 years.
Even so, Haffner had to close early, in order to ensure he would have enough 7-foot trees available for next year. It’s a balancing act all tree farms have to perform when thinking of operating their business. Haffner said if the farm ever has less than 1,000 7-footers at a time, that can affect his consumer base and future sales.
Haffner also warns that a shortage in Missouri could be on the way.
“There are around 100 Christmas tree farms in Missouri, about 80 of those are run by people in their mid-to-late 70s,” Haffner said. “This is a job that requires a lot of physical labor.”
Some farms in Missouri have already closed. The last agricultural census, recorded in 2017, found there were 115 Christmas tree farms in Missouri, totaling 1,565 acres of land, with 112 of those acres irrigated. A total of 26,577 trees were cut from those farms, down more than 6,000 from the 2012 recording of 32,810 trees cut.
According to the National Christmas Tree Association the median price of Christmas trees went up in 2019, to about $77 from $66 in 2018. Fortune reported the median price of Christmas trees will continue to rise this year as well, with a median price of $81.
Due to the pandemic, Christmas tree farms have also cut back on the experience that typically comes with getting your tree for the holidays. Farms have canceled visits from Santa Claus, and stopped serving hot chocolate to slow the spread of coronavirus. Pumpkins and Pines has moved some registers outside, to have transactions be done where the spread is less likely.
Spending more time outside at home is another symptom of the pandemic. With temperatures starting to fall below freezing, people are scrambling to stay warm outside.
The answer for some fueled a boom in fire pits.
Frank Schloegel, owner of Southside Wood Co. in Kansas City, Kansas, said he has seen sales nearly triple this year.
“It’s damn near every other customer,” Schloegel said of the amount of new people looking for firewood.
Prices for firewood vary from $22 for a small bag of hickory wood, to $200 for a half cord of seasoned oak.
Another popular item has been wood used for barbeque smokers, which Schloegel says is another symptom of people having more time at home to cook.
The increase in wood sales has been welcomed for the small business, especially at a time when younger people are turning to fake fireplaces and outdoor electrical heaters that require less hassle than a real fire. But Schloegel says there is less “romance” in a fake fire, and his customers feel the same.
“You just can’t beat the smell and crackle of a real fire,” Schloegel said.
Jacob Douglas covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America.