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Short supply, tall demand pinch Christmas tree industry

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Max Copeland
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Interlochen Public Radio
Phil Loesel and Jamie Helsel drag the tree Lisa cut down to the baler.

With COVID-19 and supply chain issues, 2021 has been challenging. Many people see the holidays as a way to put a bow on an unsavory year.

For those who celebrate Christmas, having a real tree can lift their spirits. This year however, some people are having a hard time finding one.

“I’ve gotten more calls this year than I’ve ever gotten for people looking for wholesale trees,” said Jamie Helsel, who owns a tree farm in McBain. “They can’t find ‘em.”

On a weekend in December, Phil and Lisa Loesel find a blue spruce on Jamie’s farm.

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Max Copeland
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Interlochen Public Radio
Phil and Lisa Loesel pick out a tree on Jamie Helsel's Tree Farm. Phil got covered in snow when he brushed it off the tree to get a better look.

“It is pretty, it’s nicely shaped, it’s straight,” said Lisa. “Give me the saw, I want to cut it.”

Phil gives his wife the hand saw, and she cuts it down.

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Max Copeland
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Interlochen Public Radio
Phil gives his wife Lisa the hand saw.

Jamie Helsel is a fourth generation Christmas tree farmer. He says a lot of family members are in the industry, Which is appropriate because he says their last name means “works with wood” in German.

“We’re in Christmas trees or we’re in the hardwoods,” he said. “It’s a big family—lots of branches.”

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Max Copeland
/
Interlochen Public Radio
Lisa figures out how to hold the hand saw.

He said the shortage people are seeing now is the result of a long term trend. There are fewer growers today than there used to be.

“There’s not as many younger ones coming in as there (are) older ones leaving.”

This trend is playing out in Jamie’s own family. His dad Roddie drove from Michigan to Tennessee, to sell his Christmas trees, but he says he wants out.

“I can’t take it any longer...it’s too hard to get help, and it leaves a lot of the job up to me,” said Roddie Helsel. “(My) back’s bad, (my) feet are bad, I’m just getting old enough I’m going to have to retire.”

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Max Copeland
/
Interlochen Public Radio
Lisa Loesel cuts down a Christmas tree on Jamie Helsel's Tree Farm in McBain.

As for the younger generation, it’s hit or miss. Jamie’s daughter Ideline is helping at the tree stand now, but she has other future plans.

“I wanna be a sound engineer and work in recording studios,” said Ideline. “I probably won’t be doing this, but it’s fun while I am doing it.”

Bert Cregg is a professor at Michigan State University who specializes in Christmas tree production. He says growers are aging out across the industry.

“A lot of these are family farms that people have been at for a while—and then is the younger part of the family interested in getting in?” said Cregg. “If not, then the farm is up for sale.”

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Max Copeland
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Interlochen Public Radio
Timber! Lisa Loesel cuts down a blue spruce on Jamie Helsel's tree farm.

Cregg says Christmas tree production in Michigan peaked in the 1970s when state growers harvested about 4 million trees annually.

According to surveys done by the United States Department of Agriculture, the acreage of Christmas tree farms in Michigan has declined by 70 percent over the last 30 years.

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Max Copeland
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Interlochen Public Radio
Lisa Loesel celebrates her success in cutting down a blue spruce for her Christmas tree.

Declining production is not the only thing affecting supply right now.

“The recession in 2008 probably didn’t help things in terms of markets, when you realize it takes 8-10 years to grow a tree,” said Cregg.

Other experts agree. They say tree production declined so sharply during the recession because growers couldn’t afford to plant as many trees.

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Max Copeland
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Interlochen Public Radio
Jamie Helsel stands on his Christmas tree farm with his left hand resting on his bailer. Over his right shoulder, you can see trees that he painted pink per his daughter's request.

Retirees and the recession are affecting supply, but demand is changing too.

Cregg says demand for Christmas trees has gone up. COVID caused a recent increase. He argues more people staying at home for the holidays drove last year’s surge.

Some farmers ran out of mature trees. Jamie Helsel says some of his cousins were forced to cut smaller trees to meet wholesalers’ demands.

“They’re cutting stuff that’s supposed to be for a couple years down the road,” said Jamie. “That’s just gonna keep the ball rolling for the shortage. ”

Climate change is also having an effect. Jamie says early warming and frosts can kill growth.

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Max Copeland
/
Interlochen Public Radio
Jamie Helsel bales a Christmas tree for Phil and Lisa Loesel.

So, what does this all mean for the industry?

For decades prices have been flat, but a spokesperson for the National Christmas Tree Association said average prices across the country have risen nearly 50 percent over the past five years.

Jamie says he hasn’t had to raise his prices yet.

“Next year I’ll probably raise my prices,” said Jamie.

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Max Copeland
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Interlochen Public Radio
This tree was cut down by Lisa Loesel and baled by Jamie Helsel on his tree farm east of Cadillac.

If you’re looking for a tree this year, you should be able to find one. You might just have to look a little bit harder.

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Max Copeland
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Interlochen Public Radio
A tree covered in snow on Jamie Helsel's tree farm in McBain.

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