Christmas tree growers seek federal nod for common ad campaign

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 8, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Got Christmas tree?

Just in time for the holidays, some domestic Christmas tree producers are hoping to emulate the nation's dairy, beef and cotton farmers, who tax themselves to pay for common ads. But first, they must rally support for an idea some oppose on principle.

On Monday, the Agriculture Department began public consideration of the proposed Christmas tree promotion program. If approved, the program would raise $2 million a year for ads meant to offset the increasingly competitive artificial tree industry.

"We think this is a really good idea," said Paul Battaglia, the owner of the Battaglia Ranch in San Martin, Calif. "We've been losing a lot of our market share."

Artificial tree sales nearly doubled to 17.4 million from 2003 to 2007, according to the Agriculture Department. Fresh-tree sales, meanwhile, have declined overall from 37 million in 1991 to 31 million in 2007, according to the Agriculture Department.

There's nothing ho-ho-ho about this competition, as tree farmers dismiss "fake" trees while artificial tree manufacturers retort that their products don't shed needles and don't catch fire.

Any new ad campaign, though, would probably have to stay positive.

The proposed Christmas tree program would be akin to 18 existing promotion orders already overseen by the Agriculture Department and funded by industry assessments. Some are very large, like two dairy industry programs that together collect some $391 million annually. Others are modest, like the $2.7 million-a-year watermelon promotion program.

Some of the resulting promotions, including the dairy industry's long-running "Got Milk?" campaign and the cotton industry's "Cotton: the fabric of our lives" slogan, have entered the national vocabulary.

"That's where we want to go," said Battaglia, whose tree ranch is south of San Jose and the famed Silicon Valley. "We want to get to something that's kind of catchy."

Overall, farmers and Agriculture Department officials tout the assessment-funded ad programs as successful and worth the price.

"These marketing efforts have had a positive and a statistically significant impact on per capita fluid milk consumption," officials with the dairy industry programs asserted, in their most recent annual report.

Skeptics exist, though, and some producers challenge both the efficacy and fairness of mandatory advertising fees. Within California's San Joaquin Valley, for instance, some tree fruit producers have fought similar assessment programs for many years, with several challenges reaching the U.S. Supreme Court.

"Individuals have a First Amendment interest in freedom from compulsion to subsidize speech," former Justice David Souter argued in a 1997 challenge brought by California peach and nectarine growers.

Souter was in the minority, and by a 5-4 vote the court upheld the tree fruit program. The court in 2005 likewise upheld the beef promotion program, but other free-speech challenges keep popping up in state courts.

The proposed Christmas tree program would charge producers and importers 15 cents for every fresh-cut tree. A Christmas Tree Promotion Board, appointed by the Agriculture Department, would administer the funds.

The new program could be established after the public comment period expires on Feb. 11. An industry-wide referendum would be held within three years to determine whether the program continues.

"Growers will have plenty of time to get through harvest and the sales season and then provide comments," noted Pam Helmsing, the executive director of the Missouri-based National Christmas Tree Association, adding that "the program includes a strong research component to work with the promotion of trees."

There are about 12,000 U.S. tree farms, according to the Agriculture Department. The National Christmas Tree Association, based on consumer surveys, pegs total fresh Christmas tree purchases at about 28 million annually. The survey-produced consumer estimates differ from the Agriculture Department's production numbers.

A handful of states, including North Carolina and Pennsylvania, currently account for most domestic tree production. Oregon, Michigan and Wisconsin are also among the top five states in tree production.


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