91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Politics messes up Christmas tree growers' national ad campaign

Sales of real Christmas trees are down more than 20 percent for the past two decades. This season Christmas tree growers wanted to collectively start an advertising campaign to try to reverse that trend. But of all things, politics, got in the way. 

Artificial Christmas trees gaining favor

Real trees still outsell fake trees by about three to one. But artificial tree sales have been increasing for several years. Fake trees now have a slightly higher share of the Christmas tree market than real ones. Michigan is the third largest grower of real Christmas trees in the U.S., harvesting around 3 million a year.

Horrock’s Nursery has sold Christmas trees since 1937. The choose-and-cut lot is off a state highway north of Ionia, Michigan. Over the weekend, parents and grandparents clustered around a wood fire. A horse drawn carriage – complete with sleigh bells – takes families down muddy rows of farm-raised firs and pines. Horrock’s has around a dozen different kinds of trees.

“It’s kind of fun,” Jack Hoedeman said while loading up his seven foot White Pine. Hoedeman drove nearly an hour from Grand Rapids with his family. They picked out the pine and chopped it down together. “It’s a little inconvenient but it’s really fun to bring the grandkids out here and have hot chocolate and roast marshmallows. It’s really it’s a good Christmas tradition to cut your own,” Hoedeman said.

Horrocks’ co-owner Matt Horrocks says the whole ‘family experience’ has become a key selling point for his Christmas tree business.

Hopes to slow the trend with fresh-cut Christmas tree advertising

Executive Director of the Michigan Christmas tree Association Marsha Gray says most Christmas tree operations are small farmers. “When we have so many different individual farmers it’s difficult for them on their own to executive an effective ad campaign.” Gray says there’s no exact count, but estimates there are between 600 and 700 growers. Only about half of those harvest more than 500 trees per year.

Gray and others turned to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for help in marketing real trees a few years ago. Industry leaders wanted to see if a majority of growers would chip in for a national advertising campaign – called check-off programs.

There’s already about 20 other commodities with USDA marketing programs. The first national campaign started in 1966 for cotton. Farmers pay $1 a bale towards“the fabric of our lives”cotton ads. These fees add up to more than 70 million dollars a year. And cotton growers get bang for their buck; $8 in return for every $1 they invest. There are the celebrities with “got milk?” moustaches (raises about $90 million). There’s“Beef – it’s what’s for dinner” (raises about $80 million). There’s “the incredible edible egg” (raises $18 million).

About 70-percent of Christmas tree growers were in favor of the fees. So on November 8th the USDA made the program official. Growers who sold more than 500 trees would pay 15-20 cents per tree to fund the campaign. The hope was to raise during this season closer to what the blueberry, mango or watermelon board raises a year; somewhere between $2  million and $4 million.

Michigan grower Matt Horrocks guesses he’ll harvest 1,000 trees this year, so that would cost him $150. “It’s a drop in the barrel,” Horrocks’ shrugged “It’s not that big of a deal.”

Misleading reports of President Obama's "New Christmas tree Tax"

But politics quickly turned it into a big deal.  Within hours of the program’s approval, the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation branded it Obama’s “New Christmas tree Tax.”  Over the next few days some mainstream news outlets repeated that slogan.

Marsha Gray got frustrated when saw these reports because they’re wrong. “The government is not requiring us to do this the industry is asking for it,” Gray insisted.

No taxpayer dollars are used to support commodity marketing programs. The USDA just oversees them and the agency gets fees from the growers for doing that. Still, within days the USDA put the Christmas tree program on hold to give everyone more time to understand it.

Will more time even matter?

Marsha Gray says the USDA should’ve approved the program months ago. “I’m not trying to place blame at their feet but to bring this out in November; how did they not think that gee maybe somebody might try to spin this as something bad going into the holidays?” Gray said.

A USDA spokesman agrees that timing was everything. But he points out there never was a problem with beef or cotton or any of the other 20 or so programs. For now, the program is on hold indefinitely. That's a first for any USDA marketing program that was approved. Whether the program will be any less political in the middle of a major election year, remains to be seen.

Lindsey Smith is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently leading the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.