30 million Christmas trees bend toward 1980 harvest

In another week, immediately after Thanksgiving Day turkeys are devoured, men , women, and children will begin to climb around Israel Hill, on the Jones Tree Farm here, armed with saws.

They will mark the start of the Christmas tree season, a short but intense period for some 10,000 growers across the country. Even though the season lasts only about 30 days, the industry estimates it accounts for some $1 billion in retail sales, counting ornaments, garlands, and tree stands. In total, some 30 million trees will be sold in that short period.

Fortunately, says Jane Svinicki, associate editor of The American Christmas Tree Journal, published in Milwaukee, there will be no shortages of trees this year. She notes, however, that supplies will remain relatively tight -- with prices up 5 to 7 percent over last year.

Ms. Svinicki says the drought in the Midwest, as well as in North and South Dakota and parts of Montana, has hurt some growers. And in New York, New Jersey , and Connecticut the gypsy moth attacked some Christmas trees last summer when it ran out of deciduout trees. The dry spell in the East also hurt the spring planting -- which will create shortages in 6 to 12 years. But for the most part , supplies are adequate this year.

The Christmas tree has made something of a comeback from five years ago, when artificial trees took the market by storm. From a relatively small sales base, artificial trees eventually accounted for about 25 to 30 percent of the total tree market. Now, however, Calvin J. Frelk, president of the National Christmas Tree Association, estimates that artificial trees are down to 29 to 25 percent of the market. Sales of natural trees have stopped declining and are rising 2 to 3 percent per year.

Exports are rising, with some 340,000 trees shipped to West Germany, Belgium, Mexico, and Canada. Last year, Mr. Frelk recalls, a German buyer wanted to buy 1 million trees, but US manufacturers decided that an order that large could disrupt the American markets, causing a sharp escalation of prices.

To woo buyers back to natural trees, Christmas tree growers have mounted a public relations campaign extolling the virtues of using a nonpetroleum-based product. (Most of the artificial trees are made of plasic, which is petroleum-based.)

They also point out that the industry employs about 100,000 people, including a large number of teen-agers.

Probably one of the chief selling points for the growers is the increasing prices of artificial trees. With the price of oil rising, the prices of these trees have soared. One can run from $80 to $120. In California, some go for $ 300.

Hereat the Jones Tree Farm, families will be buying and cutting their own trees for $18 on weekends and $15 on weekdays.

At these prices, owner Philips Jones doesn't have too many complaints. This Christmas he expects to sell about 5,000 trees on land that is not suitable for any other kind of farming, since it is too hilly and rocky.He can remember his grandfather tilling the land with a team of oxen when he used to grow buckwheat on the land.

In 1938, however, Mr. Jones began growing cut-your-own Christmas trees. As he got more serious about it, he developed his own nursery, growing trees from seed, and began applying fertilizers and insecticides.

The Joneses have kept farming in the family. Mr. Jones's son, Terry, recently took second place in a statewide outstanding-young- farmer contest. Terry is the fifth-generation Jones to farm the 220 acres.

On a much larger scale, Mr. Frelk is owner and operator of the Northern Growers Christmas Tree Company in Merrillan, Wis. This year he expects to ship between 150,000 to 200,000 scotch pines and balsam firs. He will reach markets as far away as the Florida Keys, Maine, and New Mexico.

The White House is getting its Christmas tree this year from Harry Eby, owner of Eby's Pines in Bristol, Ind. The 18-foot, 18- year-old Douglas fir will be presented to the Carters on Dec. 11, but will be unveiled at a later date. The tree was grown from seed by Mr. Eby.

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