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Farmers hope shoppers pick pines over plastics

Association uses humor in campaign to promote ambiance and advantages of real trees
Friday, December 3, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 8:15 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 14, 2008

Francis “FirCoppola and “SpruceSpringsteen are listed as the producers of an Internet video game this holiday season called “The Attack of the Mutant Artificial Trees” for a St. Louis-based trade association of Christmas tree farmers. The objective is to destroy as many artificial trees as possible with snow balls. The enemy pops out of cardboard boxes that say “Made in China” and “100% Fake,” and the player retaliates with a point and click of the mouse.

The game is sponsored by the National Christmas Tree Association and is part of a multi-front offensive to regain market share from the artificial tree industry.

The association has also teamed up with the movie “The Polar Express” by offering a $3 discount on any tree more than 20 feet tall for moviegoers and is sponsoring a college scholarship competition called “Help Santa Find the Perfect Real Christmas Tree.”

This year’s marketing efforts follow years of dwindling sales.

According to the association’s data, the number of households with a real Christmas tree fell from 50 to 39 percent between 1990 and 2000. In the past two years, total purchases of real trees dropped from 27.8 million to 23.4 million.

New evidence suggests the decline in sales might be leveling off.

A recent national poll commissioned by the association predicts that consumers will purchase about 1 million more real trees this holiday season.

More than 20 million Christmas trees were cut nationwide in 2002, and Boone County produced 11 percent of Missouri’s total of 92,483. Boone County also had the most Christmas tree farms in the state with 16 in 2002, the first year the Census of Agriculture tallied such information.

But the artificial tree industry remains undaunted.

Leon Gamze, owner of Tree Classics, one of the largest online artificial tree retailers, said he’s increased sales 30 percent every year for the past 10 years. Christmas tree farmers, he said, are history.

Real tree farmers attribute their decline in sales to lifestyle changes.

“There’s not one reason why people aren’t buying as many real Christmas trees as they used to, but part of it relates to the demise of the family as we used to know it,” said Clarke Gernon, a spokesman for the association who grows Christmas trees in Louisiana. “Another reason is that the adults in the family are so busy that using a real tree has been rejected just because it takes more time.”

Gamze agrees.

“People don’t want to spend an entire day cutting down their own Christmas tree,” he said.

But Gernon said real trees have certain safety and environmental advantages that will keep them in demand. The association has even formed an alliance with the environmental advocacy group Earth 911 and received an endorsement in the December issue of Vegetarian Times.

“The trees we grow are environmental resources, and they are easily disposed of,” Gernon said.

Teresa Meier of the Missouri Christmas Tree Association pointed out the health concerns of some artificial trees.

“A lot of their trees are made in China and have lead issues after years of heavy use,” Meier said, adding that artificial trees are non-biodegradable.

A 2003 study by the Environmental Quality Institute at the University of North Carolina found some new and used artificial trees emitted high levels of lead. The institute offers lead testing kits at www.leadtesting.org.

“There is a slight trace of lead in the wire for the lighting. But all lighting has a slight trace. Not one person has ever gotten lead poisoning from an artificial tree,” Gamze said.

To ship products to California, Gamze must put a warning label on each tree because of a state proposition.

“They’ve got a law for everything in California,” he said.

Real Christmas trees have health issues, too, particularly with fire safety.

Columbia Battalion Chief Steve Sapp said the city goes by the International Fire Code of 2000, a legal document that forbids real Christmas trees in apartments without appropriate fire prevention technology and anywhere people might be assembling, such as churches and bars.

“But we take the approach that we are not the Christmas tree police,” Sapp said. “We’re not going to go into people’s apartments.”

Sapp said that real trees are forbidden in all of Columbia’s public schools.

Gernon believes the threat is often overstated

“There has never been a Christmas tree that auto-ignited,” he said.

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