Christmas tree shortage driving up prices, putting some Utah tree lots out of business

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Joe Shadle sets up his J & T Christmas Tree lot at 7200 south 900 east in Middle, Utah Monday November 20, 2017. Utah Christmas tree lots will have less stock and higher prices this year due to a regional shortage of Christmas trees. Shadle is setting up 6 Christmas tree lots across the valley this year. He was able to stock his business but said he'll have to raise prices, particularly on his most popular, premium offerings in Salt Lake City.

For the first time in many years, Thanksgiving will be a quiet holiday for the Vario family.

Normally Tooele residents Julie Vario and her husband, Pat, would spend this week hectically preparing fresh-cut conifers from Oregon for sale at their family-run Christmas tree lot in Tooele County.

But this year, a first in 65 years, the family doesn’t have a single tree for sale, due to a regional shortage among suppliers.

“Every year in June we talk to the vendor and go up to Oregon to look at the trees and decide what to take,” Julie Vario told The Salt Lake Tribune. “This year when we said we would be up, he sent a text back and said we don’t have enough trees for you.”

Alas, this isn’t the premise for a feel-good Christmas story that ends with Santa Claus flying in to save the day. Christmas tree retailers across Utah are struggling to stock their lots this year due to a complex but very real shortage of Christmas trees in the Pacific Northwest, where most of Utah’s commercial trees are sourced.

“If you go A-Z in the Christmas tree growers director, there is nobody,” said Joe Shadle, owner of J&T Trees, which operates six Christmas tree lots on the Wasatch Front. “You can’t find trees.”

Most larger retailers, including J&T, saw this shortage coming.

It can take up to 10 years to grow a Christmas tree for market, Shadle said, and 8-9 years ago, at the height of the Great Recession, there was reduced demand for live Christmas trees. Retailers paid just $12 for trees that cost farmers $16 to produce, so the farmers opted not to plant Christmas trees, and in some cases even tore the trees out to replace them with crops they hoped would prove more lucrative, such as blueberries or hazelnuts.

Fast forward to today, and Shadle and other retailers are locked in a bidding war that has the best-quality trees going for upwards of $40 — wholesale. And smaller retailers, including the Vario family, are getting cut out entirely.

“We can’t afford to pay that price — that’s what we charged our customers,” Julie Vario said. “We’re just a little lot. We’re not Home Depot where you have a multitude of customers.”

Large-volume retailers are better able to compete for limited stock. Shadle, who plans to move 6,000-7,000 Christmas trees in the coming weeks, said he purchased trees from 16 different farmers, and plans to bring some in from his own farm, as well.

Mid-sized lots, such as the Petersen Family Farm in Riverton, were hesitant to disclose how many trees they had bought or how much they paid. If larger retailers found out they had managed to secure some trees, owner Luke Petersen explained, they might buy truckloads of conifers out from under them.

With that heightened competition for tight supplies, Shadle said the best-quality trees will run as much as $80 each this year. Consumers accustomed to buying a pristine, 8-foot Noble Fir should prepare for sticker shock this season, Shadle said.

But in hopes of guaranteeing an affordable tree for customers who visits his lots this year, Shadle said they also brought scores of “second-rate” trees that might sell for $30 or less.

Petersen, in Riverton, said he, too, reluctantly raised prices for premium trees this year, though he added that he felt blessed to have solid relationships with suppliers who opted to “cut throats on the big guys,” rather than shorting his farm. But he said he also had another creative solution up his sleeve: local conifers.

Typically, Petersen said, Utah-sourced “wild” Christmas trees make up about 25 percent of his sales, with the more popular farm-grown varieties comprising the rest.

“I’m trying to grow that,” he said. “I’m trying to focus on the wild trees, the local trees, because I think they’re more memorable and easier to take care of — and less susceptible to market swings.”

The wild-cut Utah trees, Petersen said, will sell for noticeably lower prices, and he’s been coaching his sales staff on how to sell the local varieties as “trees with personality.”

“It’s tough, but we’re doing it, and we’re really excited about it,” he said. “I’m really excited about my Utah trees, because I think they’re priced a little bit lower, and I think people are going to buy them for that reason, and I think we’re going to fall in love with them.”

Lovers of Utah-grown trees who don’t mind cutting their own can get permits to fell a wild juniper or Pinyon pine on select public lands for just $10, but they’ll have to act quickly. The Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service both allow a limited number of trees to be harvested from key locations — usually areas where removing the trees serves management or conservation purposes.

However, permits for locations near the Wasatch Front — including Tooele, Box Elder and Utah counties this year — typically sell out quickly, said Hannah Cowan, a public information officer working in the BLM’s West Valley office. Of the more than 700 permits originally available from her office, Cowan said, all but about 200 had sold as of November 17.

For those up for an adventure, the Evanston Ranger District in Wyoming still has tree-cutting permits available. The district typically sells about 2,500 permits a year, but asked for 500 extra this time, said Ambera Kirkland, an administrative support clerk who sells the permits out of the Forest Service office in Wyoming.

The Forest Service has yet to run out of Christmas trees for sale, but those interested must buy their permit from the Evanston office in person, Kirkland said, and will be limited to the remote north slope of the Uintahs for harvesting their tree.