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Local Christmas tree growers mixed on proposed ad campaign

WASHINGTON - Got Christmas tree?

Just in time for the holidays, some domestic Christmas tree producers are hoping to emulate the nation's dairy, beef, and cotton farmers, who tax themselves to pay for advertisements shared by all in the group.

But first, they must rally support for an idea some oppose on principle.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture began public consideration last week of the proposed Christmas tree promotion program.

If approved, the program would mean a 15 cents-a-tree tax and would raise $2 million a year for ads to battle the increasingly competitive artificial tree industry.

"We think this is a really good idea," said Paul Battaglia, the owner of a tree-growing operation in San Martin, Calif. "We've been losing a lot of our market share."

Marsha Gray, executive director of the Michigan Christmas Tree Association, was on the industry task force that suggested a national promotion program.

A tax-supported program would provide a "sustainable way to support both research and promotion," she said.

Michigan is one of the top five states in Christmas tree production. The United States has a total of about 12,000 tree farms.

The National Christmas Tree Association pegs total fresh Christmas tree purchases at about 28 million annually, based on consumer surveys.

Artificial-tree sales nearly doubled to 17.4 million from 2003 to 2007, according to the Agriculture Department. Fresh-tree sales, meanwhile, have declined overall from 37 million in 1991 to 31 million in 2007, the agency said.

There's nothing ho-ho-ho about this competition.

Tree farmers dismiss "fake" trees. Manufacturers of artificial trees retort that their products don't shed needles and don't catch fire.

The live-tree industry has tried over the years to promote itself with donations, but it hasn't been consistent.

Melissa Bowlander, co-owner of Country Lane Tree Farm in Ottawa County's Genoa, said of the proposed tree tax in the national program, “From a personal standpoint, if it does come to fruition, I would have no problem with it.”

However, Duke Wheeler, owner of the Whitehouse Christmas Tree Farm in Whitehouse, said, “I don't see any benefit to the national advertising program itself.”

Local or regional advertising is a far more effective method of promotion, he said. “I think we, as local farmers, have got to do our own promotion of the experience of getting on a farm. Promote that experience and let families enjoy the tradition of getting on the farm, walking around, and picking out their own tree.”

Any new national ad campaign would probably have to stay positive. “We want to get to something that's kind of catchy,” said Mr. Battaglia, whose tree ranch is south of San Jose, Calif., and the famed Silicon Valley.

The proposed Christmas tree program would be akin to 18 promotion projects overseen by the Agriculture Department and funded by industry assessments.

Some are very large, such as two dairy industry programs that together collect some $391 million annually. Others are modest, such as the $2.7 million-a-year watermelon program.

Some of the resulting promotions, including the dairy industry's long-running “Got Milk?” campaign and the cotton industry's “Cotton: the fabric of our lives,” have entered the national vocabulary.

Ms. Bowlander Genoa said something is needed to help the live-tree industry counter the artificial-tree industry. “We have probably seen the same number or maybe a few more new customers of late. Usually, the new customers are the children and grandchildren of loyal customers that come.”

Artificial trees have improved and look very lifelike, she acknowledged, but she added,. “They don't have the smell; that's the big difference.”

Whether a national ad campaign would change people's minds, she isn't sure. But, she added, “I don't think it could hurt.”

Ms. Gray, of the Michigan Christmas Tree Association, said her group strongly supports the tax, as do farmers in North Carolina. She said support is split on the West Coast.

Mr. Wheeler said he wouldn't mind the per-tree tax “as long as it's evenly distributed according to the tree sales.” He said it could be used by farmers to improve their tree-growing practices as well as to let the public know, by regions, the benefits of tree farms.

Overall, Agriculture Department officials tout the assessment-funded ad programs as successful and worth the price.

In their most recent annual report, officials with the dairy industry programs asserted, “These marketing efforts have had a positive and a statistically significant impact on per capita fluid milk consumption.”

Skeptics exist, though, and some producers challenge both the efficacy and fairness of mandatory advertising fees.

In California's San Joaquin Valley, for instance, some tree fruit producers have fought similar assessment programs for many years, with several challenges reaching the U.S. Supreme Court.

The proposed tree program would charge producers and importers 15 cents for every fresh-cut tree. A Christmas Tree Promotion Board, appointed by the Agriculture Department, would administer the funds.

The program could be established after the public comment period expires on Feb. 11. An industrywide referendum would be held within three years to determine whether the program continues.

Blade business writer Jon Chavez and McClatchy Newspapers contributed to this story.

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