St. Louisans chopping down Christmas trees early


Pining to leave the house, St. Louisans are chopping down Christmas trees early

JEFFERSON COUNTY — Empty-nesters Mark and Susan Wunning usually aren’t in a hurry to get their Christmas tree. Last year, they chose one from a lot near their Chesterfield home just two days before the holiday.

But, eager to celebrate — and with time on their hands — they didn’t wait this year. On Tuesday, they headed to Meert Tree Farm south of Festus and cut down a Scotch pine.

It was the first time in a long time that they’d cut their own tree, something they did years ago when their now-grown children were small.

“I think like most people, we’re doing a little more this year,” said Susan Wunning as they readied to leave the farm.

Her husband nodded, then said, “And what else are you going to do anyway?”

The real Christmas tree industry, which has been battling increased interest in artificial trees, is glad to see that more Americans appear to be flocking to fresh-cut evergreens this season, seeking a bright spot amid the worsening toll of the coronavirus.

Galve Deleste, left, holds his dog Tovah’s leash while he and his dad, Felino Deleste, carry a tree back to the car at Meert Tree Farm in Festus on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. This was the first time the family had come out together since Galve was young, but they all had the day off and thought it would be fun. The farm opened for tree hunting on Nov. 21st, a few days earlier than normal, to help ease the crowds and encourage social distancing. It will stay open seven days a week through Dec. 23, unless they run out of harvestable trees. Photo by Colter Peterson,

It’s early in the season, but both wholesale tree farmers and small cut-your-own lots are reporting strong demand, with many opening well before Thanksgiving. Businesses say they are seeing more people and earlier than ever.

At pick-your-own-tree farms across the country, customers arrived well before Thanksgiving to tag the perfect tree to cut down once the business opened. Big box stores have sought fresh trees up to a week earlier than last year, and Walmart is offering free home delivery for the first time.

A number of reasons are driving the uptick in interest. More Americans are staying home for the holidays amid pandemic restrictions and are realizing that for the first time in years — or maybe ever — they will be home to water a fresh-cut tree. With holiday parades and festivals canceled, stir-crazy families also are looking for a safe way to create special memories.

Plus, fresh-cut Christmas trees for sale are largely displayed outside, where there’s a lower risk of viral spread, said Marsha Gray, executive director of the Christmas Tree Promotion Board. The national organization says industry research tells them many people who put up an artificial tree last year plan to buy a real tree this year, and most are citing the pandemic as the reason.

“Yes, it’s a product, it’s a decoration that you put in your home, but getting a real tree involves the choosing, the hunting for it, the family outing. It really is a memory maker. It’s a day you spend together, and it really becomes much bigger than the tree itself,” Gray said. “It’s really making family memories and people really seem to gravitate to that right now.”

Flocking to the fields

St. Louis-area tree farms and lots offering pre-cut trees are reporting an uptick in shoppers earlier in the year.

“I think people are tired of being home and want to get out,” said Jennifer Sommerkamp, manager of Meert Tree Farm, which her parents own. It usually opens on the Friday after Thanksgiving. This year, it opened the weekend before in hopes of spreading out tree-seekers who’d want to avoid weekend crowds.

“It’s a good, family thing to do,” she said.

Thatcher Stone, 2, helps his dad Garret Stone cut down the family Christmas tree at Meert Tree Farm in Festus on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. The farm opened for tree hunting on Nov. 21st, a few days earlier than normal, to help ease the crowds and encourage social distancing. It will stay open seven days a week through Dec. 23, unless they run out of harvestable trees. Photo by Colter Peterson,

The Baker family of Des Peres was out searching for a tree Tuesday afternoon — normally they’d make a weekend outing, but they wanted to come when fewer people were around.

“We wanted to keep our tradition alive,” said Mary Baker, as she, her husband and kids prepared to head out to choose a tree to chop.

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And people are opting for pre-cut trees too.

Lynn Sullivan, owner of Sullivan Farms Christmas Trees, said sales are up 150% over last year’s. He has five locations around the St. Louis area, and business is up at all of them. He sells only pre-cut trees.

“If it continues on the path it’s on now, it’ll most definitely be one of the more top-selling years we’ve ever had,” he said.

Sullivan was inundated with phone calls before opening for the season, on the Saturday before Thanksgiving.

”All that week, I had people wanting to come by to buy a tree,” he said.

Not all farms, however, are cashing in. Vernon Spaunhorst, owner of Heritage Family Tree Farm in Washington, Missouri, didn’t open early, or at all — he’s not selling any trees this year.

“We didn’t know how we could sell trees and keep people safe, and employees safe, and keep ourselves safe,” he said. Last year was his 30th year in business, and he and his wife normally sell between 1,500 and 1,800 white pines, Canaan firs and Norway spruces.

They want to reopen next year.

“We’ll have a nice selection of trees, just a little bigger,” Spaunhorst said.

Younger tree seekers

The growing interest in real trees comes after the industry has struggled to attract new, younger customers in recent years as more Americans buy artificial trees.

Between 75% and 80% of Americans who have a Christmas tree now have an artificial one, and the $1 billion market for fake trees has been growing by about 4% a year — despite them being reusable.

The United States Department of Agriculture reports real Christmas tree cultivation, but the department’s data is a few years behind. And no one tracks annual sales of real trees because independent tree lots are so scattered.

Still, those in the business estimate about 20 million trees or more are sold each year, most of them at big box stores such as Costco and Home Depot.

The fresh-cut tree industry in 2018 launched a social media campaign called “It’s Christmas. Keep It Real!” to attract young families and media-savvy millennials.

This year, the Christmas Tree Promotion Board also asked Rob Kenney, creator of the “Dad, How Do I?” YouTube channel, to make an instructional video for newbies on how to shop for and put up a real tree, then keep it alive. It’s gotten tens of thousands of views.

“We want to introduce real Christmas trees to young families and new buyers and create greater demand among those people who say, ‘I’m a little nervous about just taking a tree and dragging it into my house,’” Gray said.

The message may be breaking through:

The Wunnings, of Chesterfield, were spurred to cut down their own tree by their grown children, who sent videos of themselves doing just that.

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