Christmas Tree Profile

By Dan Burden, content specialist, AgMRC, Iowa State University,

Updated November 2013 by Diane Huntrods, AgMRC, Iowa State University.

Reviewed March 2012 by J.S. Isaacs.

In the United States, Christmas trees are an important part of Christian Christmas celebrations and of the national winter holiday.

Christmas trees have been commercially sold in the United States since about 1850, when most were cut from forests. Midway through the last century, tree farms began to appear, and now most Christmas trees are grown on farms.

Nearly 2,700 operations sold 12.9 million Christmas trees valued at $249.8 million in 2009. That is a decrease from 2007 when the Census of Agriculture reported 13,374 farms growing cut Christmas trees and short-rotation woody crops with sales of $384 million (Census of Horticultural Specialties).

While Christmas trees are grown for sale in 45 U.S states, the top five tree-producing states in 2009 were as follows: Oregon (more than 4.9 million), North Carolina (2.8 million), Michigan (1.2 million), Pennsylvania (812,000) and Wisconsin (619,000). 174,000 acres of land in the United States were in Christmas tree production that year, down from 446,996 acres of land in 2002 (NASS 2010).

The best-selling species are Fraser fir, Noble fir and Douglas fir, followed by Balsam fir and Scotch pine. North Carolina is the leading producer of Fraser fir, and Oregon is the leading producer of both Noble fir and Douglas fir. An estimated 60 to 70 million Christmas tree seedlings are planted yearly for upcoming years’ crops. The industry employs an estimated 100,000 people (NASS, USDA; National Christmas Tree Association).

Almost all trees require pruning management (shearing) to attain the proper branch and fascicle (twig/needle) density and a proper cone-shaped Christmas tree shape. Plantation production is the best system for delivering the regularly scheduled pruning, water management and general care necessary to produce the highest-quality product. On tree plantations, more than 2,000 trees are usually planted per acre. On average 1,000 to 1,500 of these trees survive; disease prevention, water and stand management are crucial to successful stand establishment. Roughly three-quarters of a stand remains after six to 10 years or so of culling.

Maturity for harvest usually is determined after the trees reach six to seven feet in height. Christmas trees often are “baled,” tied or similarly wrapped to protect the branches and retain the shape and overall quality of the tree during shipping.

Tree plantations are now a common source both for marketed trees and for the “cut-your-own” agritourism experience where consumers select and harvest their own trees. As of January 1, 2010, there were 2,671 Christmas tree operations raising 157.7 million trees. (National Ag Statistics Service figures suggest that the number of operations will continue to decline, falling below 2,000 within 10 years.) Canada also produces many Christmas trees, and the United States constitutes a sizable export market for those growers.

Consumers have been purchasing increasing numbers of artificial trees in recent years as many of them have been frustrated about the messiness caused by needle drop from trees that were harvested as much as two months before Christmas. Another concern has been ecological: some consumers feel that harvesting a tree for just a few weeks’ display is wasteful. However, environmental groups are now endorsing real trees as an eco-friendly alternative to artificial trees. Eighty percent of artificial trees currently come from China where environmental standards are lax (Real Christmas Trees).

About 24.5 million live Christmas trees were purchased in 2012, down from 30.8 million in 2011, according to the National Christmas Tree Association. The retail value of the live trees was more than $1.0 billion. Of those, 85 percent were pre-cut and 14 percent were harvested at cut-your-own enterprises. In the same year, 24 percent of Christmas trees were sold from cut-your-own tree farms and another 24 percent from chain stores. Significant percentages of Christmas trees were also sold from retail lots (15 percent), nonprofit groups (15 percent) and nursery/garden centers (11 percent).

Although exact figures are not available, the Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association notes that overseas markets include Japan, China, Hong Kong, Philippines and Mexico.

If the trends illustrated in magazines continue, some consumers will be seeking live trees that are unique in size (taller and thinner or short and squat) and appearance (less formally sheared, more protruding branches to accommodate broad swaths of decoration).

Cut Christmas Trees: 2007 and 2002, 2007 Census of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), USDA, 2009.
Christmas Trees and More, University of Illinois Extension.
National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA).
Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association.
2009 Census of Horticultural Specialties, NASS, USDA, 2010.

Trend Links
Selling Christmas Decorations - Information on latest trends.
Real Christmas Trees Save Water, National Geographic,  2011. 

Links checked September 2013.