One recession proof business: Christmas trees

Wary shoppers may be slashing their gift lists, but one Christmas tradition appears to be recession proof: the tree.

"People are going to have 'em a Christmas tree," said Sheila Barrier, a Burke County tree grower who set up shop at the State Farmers Market this month.

Even as the economic crisis gripped the nation last year, statewide sales of live Christmas trees were off less than 1 percent from 2007. And many growers say this year's sales are starting off stronger than last year's.

Christmas trees make up a small fraction of the state's $10 billion farm economy, bringing in about $100 million a year for North Carolina farmers. But they have become a bright spot for the agriculture industry as it has been battered by declining profit from meat, nursery plants and other high-value products.

Western North Carolina farmers grow about a quarter of the nation's Christmas trees, putting the state second in the nation. Oregon is first.

Some tree buyers say the Christmas tree is more important than the piles of gifts under it.

"It's the memory-making part," said Elizabeth Langfahl of Raleigh, who was buying a tree this week with her two daughters, 3 and 6. "My girls can't tell you what they got last year, but they remember getting the Christmas tree."

Langfahl said she is carefully watching her purchases this holiday season rather than filling stockings with trinkets. But she is buying a bigger tree than in years past, hoping to decorate it with her children's handmade ornaments.

"It's sort of a small investment for a lot of enjoyment," she said.

Barrier and her husband, Virgil, said their sales on the weekend after Thanksgiving were up nearly 40 percent over last year. Other growers agreed that the first big weekend of the Christmas tree buying season was unusually busy.