‘We got eaten alive’: Christmas trees in short supply 

By: - December 13, 2021 5:42 am
A man stands in a barn near old forestry equipment

Billy Kunelius, a forester at the New Hampshire State Nursery, works the “cone tumbler,” where seeds are shaken free. (Amanda Gokee | New Hampshire Bulletin)

In 2020, Mike Ahern’s Christmas tree farm in Plymouth sold 50 percent more trees than normal, which Ahern chalked up to the pandemic: With more people spending time at home, many found their way to the farm for the first time.

He was sure things would return to normal this year, but so far that hasn’t been the case.

In fact, the farm’s sales this year are actually outpacing last year’s. And Ahern attributes it in part to other Christmas tree farms and vendors running out of trees earlier than usual – weeks ahead of Christmas.

Stephen Forster of Forster’s Christmas Tree Farm in Henniker is among them. “We are desperately trying to get additional Christmas Trees from Colebrook or wherever we can get them for the next two weeks before Christmas,” a voicemail informs would-be customers. “But as of now we have no Christmas trees available.”

The Hopkinton Lions Club sold all of its trees by Dec. 5 – ending the tree sale earlier than last year. Two years ago, the club ended the season with a surplus of trees that it had to dispose of.

Ahern doesn’t have to worry about selling out – the 435-acre farm that’s been in his family since 1897 is home to over 75,000 trees. But customers have complained that the taller trees Ahern usually has on sale aren’t available this year. That’s because they were mostly sold last year. “We got eaten alive,” Ahern said. “People bought everything. So when they came to buy their tree this year they were disappointed that they couldn’t get a tall 10- to 13-foot tree.”

To stave off customer discontent, Ahern has a disclaimer on his website, explaining that fires in the West “decimated Christmas tree farms impacting wholesale availability.” Plus, oversupply of trees in 2011 and 2013 meant farmers planted fewer trees, which means there are not as many mature trees now. (A tree usually grows for about 12 to 13 years before it is harvested for Christmas.)

The effects of climate change are also having an impact on trees. Ahern said the drought of 2020 distressed the trees and a lack of snow cover, which protects the trees in the winter, “led to further loss.”

Billy Kunelius, a forester at the New Hampshire State Forest Nursery in Boscawen, said the nursery saw a significant increase in demand for Christmas tree seedlings last year, with sales jumping 50 percent from 2019 to 2020. And so far this year, the numbers are slightly above last year. Kunelius thinks the pandemic is a driving factor, as people are spending more time at home and looking for outdoor activities, including planting trees.

While Christmas trees are a huge part of the nursery’s business, Mike Powers, a regional forester for the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources who also works at the state nursery, said the environmentally minded are among those buying various species of seedlings, to support wildlife like migratory birds or pollinator species, for example, and also to stabilize stream banks and support water conservation efforts. The state nursery has historically played an important environmental role in the state; it was established in 1910, at the end of an era of heavy deforestation in New Hampshire when much of the state had been clear-cut. Seedlings from the nursery were instrumental in the reforestation of the state, Powers said.

“It seems like there’s just a higher demand for real Christmas trees over the last several years, and so we’ve been seeing that increase in demand and we’ve been trying to keep up with that – growing more of those Christmas tree species. Balsam fir and Fraser fir are our two biggest Christmas tree species,” Powers said.

The nursery sold out of those species by early January last year and reported back-to-back record sales since 2019, with sales increasing 31 percent in 2020 and 50 percent in 2021.

Polling from the University of New Hampshire suggests that this trend is more closely linked to a diminished supply of trees rather than increased demand. 

The poll found that a smaller percentage of residents said they would buy a real tree this year as compared to last. Only a quarter of state residents said they plan on having a real Christmas tree, down from half of residents in 2013. The popularity of artificial trees, meanwhile, is on the rise, according to the poll. The percentage of Granite Staters who say they will get an artificial tree has doubled since 2001, from 21 percent to 43 percent.

UNH Survey Center Director Andrew Smith said this would also help explain why tree prices have risen so dramatically in recent years. Smith thinks Christmas tree sales have been on the decline and that some farms have shut down – he’s seen this trend play out in Durham, where he’s lived for 22 years. There used to be seven or eight tree farms, he said, but now there’s only one or two. 

“The ones that are here, they’re selling out of their trees faster because there’s a limited supply even on the farms that do have them,” he said. That limited supply could also be what’s spurring tree farmers to stock up on seedlings, as they prepare – and plant – for the future. 

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Amanda Gokee
Amanda Gokee

Amanda Gokee is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s energy and environment reporter. She previously reported on these issues at VTDigger. Amanda grew up in Vermont and is a graduate of Harvard University. She received her master’s degree in liberal studies, with a concentration in creative writing, from Dartmouth College. Her work has also appeared in the LA Review of Books and the Valley News.

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