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North Carolina’s Christmas Tree Industry Expects a Record Year Despite Coronavirus Concerns

Some might think COVID-19 has put a bit of a wrench in the Christmas tree industry’s plans, but that’s not the case with the exceptional care and concern that growers are taking this year. Farms have extensively focused on social distancing and workers’ safety to ensure a bountiful harvest, and retailer lots are offering curbside pickup and instructions for consumers to secure trees atop their vehicles safely.

“I’m very impressed with the amount of care and caution operators took to ensure the safety of all the workers and consumers,” said Justin Whitehill, Christmas Tree Genetics program lead and assistant professor in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources at NC State. “Having a real tree is exciting and helps families come together, and growers want to provide that experience. COVID is a real negative, but the Christmas tree industry is offering a little bit of a ray of sunshine and hope to people who have been stuck inside for months.”

North Carolina ranks second in the nation for Christmas tree production, with 38,893 acres devoted to production. The industry employs more than 7,000 workers in North Carolina Christmas trees serve as a cash crop in North Carolina that generates income for small towns in the mountains and local businesses that focus on agritourism. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s most recent Census of Agriculture report, Christmas tree sales brought in more than $86 million in North Carolina in 2017.

New challenges for the Christmas tree industry

As of early December, some retailer lots and farms sold out of their biggest trees, and some lots closed early. But it hasn’t been an easy year for growers. 

“Through the winter, things are pretty quiet in terms of the trees, but the growers are often quite busy as they prepare for labor, do a lot of marketing and go to trade shows,” explained Jeff Owen, area extension forestry specialist in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources. “

Fieldwork usually starts around the end of February or the beginning of March with work crews putting out lime and fertilizer and getting ready for planting. By April, “growers are in full swing at that point with the tree planting and some site preparation,” Owen said. 

Work crews typically arrive during March and April. But with the COVID-19 pandemic looming, Christmas tree growers were careful as they brought in crews, working to keep new workers separate from the workers that were already here. To further protect growers, workers and consumers this year, the National Christmas Tree Association sent out guidelines to all Christmas tree growers.

Owen said growers set up separate work crews this year, with workers housed in different locations and driving different transport vans. Once workers spent a couple of weeks together, they eventually became a big family with restrictions lessened on social distancing. Still, strict requirements kept them from interacting with people outside of their designated groups.

For area extension specialists like Owen and Jill Sidebottom, who work directly with the state’s Christmas tree growers, organizing meetings and making their typical field visits have been a little challenging, but they have still stayed in touch with the growers via virtual meetings. “It has allowed us to spend more time upgrading the website and getting more videos and visuals up, including instructional videos in Spanish for our farmworkers,” Sidebottom said.

This fall, growers implemented several additional strategies to keep workers safe. For instance, the passenger vans used to transport workers were cleaned and sanitized twice a day, once after the crew went to the field and again at day’s end. Workers were also required to wear masks while in the vans or when using trucks to move trees. 

Counties have also been involved in providing protective equipment, including masks, hand sanitizer and waterless soap. Several of the major Christmas tree production counties have also tried to identify locations, such as a particular hotel, where growers could isolate workers. This is beneficial for any workers who may be running a fever or arrive later in the year to work on the farm and need to be separated from the regular crew until their health status is cleared.  

By the middle of November, more than 95 percent of the industry’s workers were in place to get large crops harvested for shipment before Thanksgiving. Come mid-December, the majority of the workers have headed home or to work in agriculture further south. Overall, growers’ efforts to keep workers safe paid off with trees going to market and workers moving on to the next seasonal crop in their yearly migration.

Safety procedures for retail lots

With COVID-19 infection rates surging across the country, Christmas tree shopping looked different this year for many consumers as growers implemented new safety protocols. Retail lots, for instance, developed different customer traffic plans and rules for the parking area. Signs were installed to notify customers that masks were required in the retail area, and curbside pickup was a new option made available at lots. 

One significant change this year was to tree-tying procedures. Many retail lot operators have decided not to offer the standard free tree-tying service to customers since it would pose a risk to the workers’ and customers’ health. The National Christmas Tree Association created a video to instruct customers on how to safely tie their newly-purchased trees atop their vehicles for safe transport home. Customers are asked to step back from the car while the worker puts it on top, and if needed, extra instruction on tying the tree down can be given from afar.

“We’ve really had to think about it all the way through, and in terms of the consumer sales season, it’s really about making sure consumers feel safe when they are shopping for a Christmas tree,” Owen said.

Amid the pandemic, there is a strong supply and demand for real Christmas trees. This year, millions of trees were harvested in North Carolina, with close to 25 million trees nationwide. An average of 20 to 25 million Christmas trees are sold each year, and growers expect this to be a record year.

“We have a home for almost every tree to be harvested in North Carolina this year,” Owen said. “I doubt growers will be leaving many trees in their farm storage yards, and I don’t think retailers are going to have a surplus of leftover trees for which they struggle  to find a home on Christmas eve.”