Arthur Khotinskiy has been selling Christmas trees in Sheepshead Bay for almost two decades. But he says this holiday season, finding enough trees to sell was a challenge.
Two months ago, his usual suppliers said they could only deliver half of his order. He went into crisis mode, making a list of farms in top tree-producing regions like North Carolina, Oregon and Canada.
“I just started calling every single farm to see if they have trees available,” said Khotinsky, the founder of AA Christmas Trees. “After a hundred nos, got into the car, overnight drove to North Carolina and just kind of started knocking on doors.”
Khotinskiy managed to find the trees he needed in time. But his experience is common among Christmas tree sellers this holiday season. They’re struggling to deal with what some sellers describe as the tightest supply of Christmas trees in years.
Unlike other consumer goods, this shortage has little to do with the supply chain crisis. Christmas trees can take up to 12 years to reach maturity, and the current shortage stems from a decline in Christmas tree planting across the country starting in the mid-2000s.
Prior to that point, farmers had been planting more trees than they could sell, according to Doug Hundley, a spokesperson for the National Christmas Tree Association, and began to cut planting back. Harvests of trees planted in that period declined by about 10 percent, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Then, the 2008 financial crisis hit, devastating tree farmers.
“People were buying fewer trees and they were buying smaller trees,” Hundley said. “Several growers decided to give it up and quit.”
Meanwhile, lower profits forced those who survived to cut back on planting during the recession, resulting in smaller harvests in recent years.
Extreme weather has exacerbated this season’s shortage: this past spring, an unexpected frost damaged the Christmas tree crop in Quebec, a major source of trees sold in the Northeast. A few months later, a heat wave hit tree farms in the Pacific Northwest.
“Hundreds of people have called us and it's not only us, but every other Christmas tree farmer,” said Paul Spaulding-Smith, a wholesaler who runs Cool Springs Nursery, a 300-acre Frasier fir farm in Boone, North Carolina. “And we're just saying, ‘Unfortunately, hey, we don't have any trees [available].”
He estimates he typically sends one-third of his annual tree harvest to sellers in New York and New Jersey.
Spaulding-Smith said he and other farmers did start to plant more trees starting in 2012, and he expects the shortage to gradually ease over the next few years.
In the meantime, Hundley said anyone who wants to buy a tree this season will still be able to find one. But he’s advising people to shop early, especially if they want a particular size.
“The availability late in the season will be smaller,” Hundley said. “People that are looking for the 10 to 12 foot tree may have to settle one.that's only eight to nine.”
Trees are also more expensive this year. Vendors in New York City say they paid at least 20% extra for wholesale trees, thanks to the shortage combined with higher pandemic costs for trucking. In Brooklyn, Arthur Khotinskiy says he had to raise prices for customers, even though he took some losses.
“We’re not trying to add another 20-to-30% onto the customer's front end,” he said. “So we're eating some of that.”
Still, his customers don’t seem deterred. Last weekend, 17-year-old Brittany Rakhmonova and her family made their annual trip to the tree lot, and bought a nine-foot tall Frasier fir for the traditional Russian celebration of the New Year.
“It’s cozy [with a tree at home],” she said. “The vibe is just different.”