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Christmas tree shortage expected this holiday season for both real and artificial trees

COVID-19 shipping backlogs are delaying the arrival of artificial Christmas trees. So experts say people should plan ahead for the holidays.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — It's only October, but Christmas tree experts are already preparing for the season. One of those experts is Leo Collins, a retired botanist for the Tennessee Valley Authority, and 38-year Christmas Tree farmer in Heiskell.

He owns and operates Bluebird Christmas Tree Farm and grows thousands of trees every year. He said he thinks of it more as an "enjoyable activity" than as a job, although the farm takes up most of his time. 

"It's grown and turned out to be successful," Collins said. 

Each year, Collins sees some of the same familiar faces come onto his property to cut down their family tree for the season.

"Sharing Christmas with like 1,500 families. I mean that's a huge reward in it of itself," Collins said. "I used to know most of the customers' names and a bit about them. We've gotten bigger now, that's one thing I've missed. But still, I recognize folks and that's a good feeling and you know asking how they're doing."

Over the course of 38 years,  Bluebird Christmas Tree Farm has grown He said working with the trees that long has also allowed him to get acquainted with the ebb and flow of the Christmas tree business. It also gave him time to evaluate trends and prepare to accommodate them in a given year. 

Collins said the 'real' Christmas tree shortage started around 8 years ago.

"It was barely noticeable at first," Collins said.

Now, he says the problem is so bad that even suppliers are struggling to buy trees and seedlings from other suppliers.

"We are now at the peak of the shortage, this is about as bad as it will get," Collins said.

The Christmas tree shortage is attributed to the natural laws of supply and demand. It starts when consumers start to take notice of the tree shortage. They realize that suppliers can get $70 for selling a big tree, and the seedlings are no more than $1. 

"If they have some land and a little time to put toward it, they may decide to plant trees," Collins said.

These types of evergreen trees take about 8-10 years to come to fruition. According to Collins, the average growth is about one foot per year.

"When those come to market, there'll be so many that people will all be trying to lower the price to sell them," Collins said.

He finds that a lot of people think the Christmas tree business means easy money; however, raising the trees requires a lot of work. It also requires consistency to really make a profit.

"It's not as much money because the trees aren't breaking $70 any longer and so then those people quit planting, which sets the stage for the next shortage," Collins said.

The shortages' effects on the consumers can differ based on the time within the season that the tree is purchased. For example, trees are expected to be anywhere from $5-$10 more expensive, specific types may not be available, and the later shoppers wait, the more likely tree farms are to sell out.

A 2021 USDA report showed that live tree costs have nearly doubled compared to 2015 prices.

An option for some is to get an artificial tree. Yet, that option is seeming less seamless this season. 

The America Christmas Tree Association predicted an artificial tree shortage due to COVID-19 delays in shipping and manufacturing. Artificial Christmas tree retailers have also reported having to raise prices by 20-30% this season.

"These price increases are the result of extreme weather events in the Pacific Northwest and Midwest, supply chain congestion in and out of ports, and shipping container shortages," said the ACTA. "The economic instability caused by COVID-19 and the impacts of extreme weather has affected all parts of the global and U.S. supply chain, and Christmas trees are no exception. These challenges mean that there will be fewer live and artificial Christmas trees available this year, and those that are available will cost more than before."