Debate over promoting real Christmas trees gets more time

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 22, 2011 

WASHINGTON — The nation's Christmas tree growers are abuzz over proposals to tax themselves so they can compete better against artificial trees.

The not entirely jolly debate is now stretching out. In response to requests from a North Carolina lawmaker, Republican U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry, and some of the state's growers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is extending the public comment period over creating a fund to promote real trees through March 9.

Hundreds of growers already have taken sides on the proposal for a Christmas tree promotion order, similar to so-called "check-off" programs established for many fruits and vegetables. The programs use assessments to pay for ads and research.

"We need to turn around the loss of market share to the artificial, petroleum-based trees that are almost totally imported, and instead help and support the local growers in the USA that grow real trees," declared Samuel Minturn, the executive director of the California Christmas Tree Association.

Based in the small Merced County community of Hilmar-Irwin, the California association is one of many tree grower organizations that have submitted written views to the Agriculture Department. More than 640 public comments have been logged so far, some rudimentary and some impassioned.

"The 'check-off' program, I believe, is a desperately needed program for the survival of the 'real' Christmas tree," declared Dale Hudler, the owner of a tree farm in West Jefferson, N.C. "We are under grave attack for market share from the artificial tree industry."

Artificial tree sales nearly doubled to 17.4 million annually from 2003 to 2007. Fresh-tree sales, meanwhile, fell from 37 million in 1991 to 31 million in 2007, according to the USDA.

Representatives of the artificial tree industry, rallied under the name American Christmas Tree Association, retort that their product shouldn't be attacked.

"Some of our members have expressed their concern that the funds might be used in a negative manner and may be used to impugn alternatives to live Christmas trees," said Jami Warner of the American Christmas Tree Association.

Based in West Hollywood, Calif., the association declares its purpose in Internal Revenue Service filings to be providing the public with information about the "personal health impact and product longevity" of Christmas trees. The association's website warns about topics such as fire risk and allergic reactions caused by live trees.

If it's approved, the new promotion program would raise an estimated $2 million a year to help offset the march of the artificial trees. Growers would pay 15 cents per tree, though farms that grow fewer than 500 trees at a time would be exempt.

"Our industry needs to put the money behind the message if we are to successfully compete with the artificial trees," said Bill Hoffman, the owner of the 30-acre Beechwold Farms in Newland, N.C.

But first, program supporters must secure an Agriculture Department go-ahead and then win an industry referendum. The outcome isn't guaranteed, as skepticism exists even among growers.

"I do not want another group of people doing my thinking for me, and promising to solve my problems if only I will turn over some of the money I earned to them," said Dan Hanauer Jr., a West Point graduate who grows Christmas trees in Shawano, Wis.

The debate fleshed out in the public comments will continue another two weeks.

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