WASHINGTON — The Christmas tree ad wars are about to heat up, albeit in a rather jolly way.
Following an extended debate that pit one region against another, the Agriculture Department on Tuesday gave the green light to a new industry-funded Christmas tree promotion program.
By taxing themselves, growers will raise $2 million a year for ads promoting the merits of real, live trees. Or, at least, trees that once were living, as opposed to the artificial kind that have seized an increasing share of the holiday market.
"As demographics and buying habits have changed we have watched the market for real trees shrink drastically, requiring us to spend much more time and money on promotion," said Don Cameron, past president of the California Christmas Tree Association.
Cameron and his wife, Carolyn, owners of a tree farm in Simi Valley, Calif., were among the 500-plus people to weigh in over the past year as the Agriculture Department considered the proposed Christmas Tree Promotion, Research and Information Order.
Akin to similar programs that promote milk, beef and cotton, the new Christmas tree program will impose on U.S. domestic producers and importers an initial fee of 15 cents per tree.
A 12-member board will direct the money to generic ads and other promotions, as well as research. The promotions, according to the Agriculture Department, will present "a favorable image of Christmas trees to the general public," with the intent of improving the public "perception" of Christmas trees and, hence, their sales.
"We have good reason to believe it will be successful for our industry," Betty Malone, an Oregon tree farmer and president of Christmas Tree Promotion Now, said in a telephone interview Tuesday. "We looked at what other industries have done, and how successful they've been."
After three years, growers and importers will vote on whether to continue the program.
Malone, whose tree farm is about 20 miles northwest of Corvallis, said she has been working on the tree promotion program for about three and a half years. She said the ads and promotions are likely to begin next year, aiming to offset what's become a steady decline in tree sales.
Fresh-tree sales declined overall from 37 million in 1991 to 31 million in 2007, according to the Agriculture Department. Artificial tree sales, meanwhile, nearly doubled to 17.4 million from 2003 to 2007.
Competitively, the live-tree and artificial-tree sectors have not always stayed in the holiday spirit, with advocates of each warning about the drawbacks of the other.
"A primary concern with a live Christmas tree is fire danger," the American Christmas Tree Association, which represents the artificial tree industry, states on its website.
The Agriculture Department rules prohibit any ads that are "disparaging to another agricultural commodity," and Malone said the industry ads will accentuate the positive.
Nationwide, there are about 12,000 commercial Christmas tree farms, with production particularly heavy in North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
Of the 565 comments submitted to the Agriculture Department, 398 supported the proposal, 147 were opposed and the remainder fell into other categories.
Some sentiment broke along state lines. Grower organizations in North Carolina and 18 other states and regions supported the new industry program, while growers in Texas and Vermont opposed it.
"If the large wholesale growers want it, fine, but they can pay for it without reaching into the small grower's pockets," declared Robert Childress of the Texas Christmas Tree Growers Association. "I feel that marketing for my products is my responsibility and I choose to rely on my efforts."
The proposal provoked other kinds of debate. One opponent called a Christmas tree a religious symbol that should not be recognized by the government. Another said the mandatory fee assessment infringed on individual freedom, and a third said Texas was a "sovereign state" whose growers should be exempt.
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