Growers, manufacturers debate merits of real, fake


December 16, 1990|By Leslie Cauley

Look carefully at that Christmas tree in the window and ask yourself one question: Is it real, or is it a petroleum by-product?

Chances are 50-50 that it's a fake, one of the 36 million knockoffs that will serve as the centerpiece in living rooms across America this holiday season.

Like the Grinch that stole Christmas, artificial trees are fast cutting into the holiday turf and pocketbooks of Christmas tree growers everywhere. And that's bad news for the nation's 15,000 growers -- 200 in Maryland -- who have more than 1 million acres planted in Christmas trees.

Farmers must spend an average of seven years growing a tree from a seedling before it can be sold, meaning farmers who plant this year are having to speculate what the Christmas tree market will be like at least seven years from now.

Given the stunning success of the artificial-tree manufacturers over the past decade, that's a risky gamble at best.

According to the National Christmas Tree Association, about half of the Christmas trees sold this year in the United States will be fake. That includes inexpensive tabletop versions that sell for less than $20 and $300 models that stand 7 feet tall and rival the best nature has to offer.

Thirty-six million will be real evergreens that have been specifically grown for sale as Christmas trees, according to the association. The latter includes cut trees sold by independent retailers, trees sold off choose-and-cut farms, where people chop down their own, and balled-and-burlapped trees that can be replanted after the holidays.

Jeanne Weiss, a spokeswoman for the association, says the 50-50 split between real and artificial is expected to remain for some time.

Many Christmas tree farmers, however, would like to improve their share.

And no wonder: It takes anywhere from eight to 13 years of painstaking work to grow a Christmas tree before it can be cut and sold.

Christmas trees, considered an agricultural crop by farmers who produce them, require constant attention to keep them free of problems caused by insects, disease and predators such as deer and gophers. Weeds have to be pruned from around trees, and the grass around their trunks must be mowed.

Trimming is the hardest part of the job, growers agree. To acquire their decidedly unnatural but classic Christmas tree shape, trees must be individually trimmed each summer. Because Christmas trees grow so slowly, mistakes in trimming -- either in timing or execution -- can take years to correct.

For farmers with hundreds of acres of Christmas trees, trimming alone can take several months.

"This is not a get-rich-quick kind of business," said Carville Akehurst, administrative director of the Maryland Christmas Tree Growers Association. "It takes a long time to produce one tree, and it's a lot of work."

For all that hard work, the end result is the same: They wind up in landfills or are carted to chipping centers to be made into mulch right after Christmas. An average tree produces enough mulch for an azalea bush, Mr. Akehurst said.

Making a fake tree is a lot faster.

During peak production at Hudson Valley Tree Inc., for example, artificial trees come off the assembly line at a rate of about one every four minutes, said Si Spiegel, president and founder of the company, one of the largest manufacturers of artificial Christmas trees in the country. All Hudson Valley trees carry a 10-year warranty, but properly cared for most will last longer than you will.

Hudson Valley uses space-age materials and patented processes in its tree factories, Mr. Spiegel said. Using real evergreens as their models, staff artisans can copy trees right down to the color and number of needles per limb.

That's a far cry from earlier industry attempts, which resulted in such classics as the "bottle washer," so named because its branches looked more like green bottle washers than evergreen limbs.

Another featured silver metal limbs and an electronic color wheel that turned the tree into a Yule nightmare of Crayola colors -- over and over again. A Fiberglas tree reportedly caused itching fits among buyers -- not exactly the stuff that Norman Rockwell Christmas memories are made of.

But today, if it's a top-quality artificial tree, chances are you won't be able to tell by just looking at it. You'd have to smell it to be sure: The fake ones don't have that evergreen aroma.

"Artificial trees are much more beautiful today than when they first came out," said Mr. Spiegel.

"It won't be long before there will be an aroma on artificial trees," said Mr. Spiegel, whose Newburgh, N.Y.-based company turns out 800,000 artificial trees a year.

In the meantime, people who want the smell as well as the look of the real thing in their living room can always spray it on.

"There are pine scents you can spray on the trees that brings that aroma in," said Mr. Spiegel.

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