2010-12-02 / Local & State

Christmas Tree Prices Hold Steady At Huge Auction

By David wenner THE (HARRISBURG) PATRIOT-NEWS

MIFFLINBURG, Pa. (AP) – This farming community invented a brand of Thanksgiving-week shopping frenzy others would love to emulate. Call it Black Tuesday.

Tuesday, a mob of shoppers lined up not outside a department store, but behind an auctioneer. The mob followed him all day through fields piled high with Christmas trees. Some bought by the dozen, some bought by the truckload.

Some 82,000 Christmas trees sold by the end of the day – up from 55,000 last year.

The auction began 20 years ago in this Union County town. It’s now billed as the nation’s largest Christmas tree auction. It also serves as a barometer of what people will pay for Christmas trees when the lots get busy beginning this weekend.

Neil Courtney, the auctioneer, said trees sold at about the same price as last year. Still, he said it’s hard to predict retail prices, which he said vary by location.

Leon Berner, of Elma, N.Y., said he sensed an “oversupply’’ of trees that he expects will benefit retail customers. He sells trees and planned to buy about 700.

“We’re getting into a glut. The prices (retail customers) will see at the store have leveled off,’’ Berner said. He also noted that prices he saw Tuesday are similar to those of 25 years ago.

The auction drew big and small Christmas tree retailers from several states.

“It helps us a lot. They seem to get more and more trees every year,’’ said Scott Andrus, of Mill Hall. His wife, Linda, runs Slopey’s Tree Farm. Despite the fact it’s a cut-your-own operation, many people show up expecting to find pre-cut trees. Beyond that, assorted weather-and disease-related factors typically affect their offering of trees, she said. This auction helps ensure they’ll have an adequate selection. Twenty years ago, only a few hundred trees were auctioned.

The auction was founded as a co-op by 32 farmers who merely wanted a market for their produce. Now, dozens of people help run the two-day event, which featured an auction of Christmas wreathes on Monday. There’s a food stand, and other workers sell goods including hot dogs, sodas and coffee out of a minivan that follows the auction procession. They’ve added a crushed-stone road through the rows of Christmas trees and installed lights.

Courtney has auctioned every Christmas tree ever sold here. He occupies a captain’s chair in the bed of a four-by-four pickup, speaking into a headset that broadcasts through a publicaddress speaker lashed to the truck’s roof.

In a machine-gun cadence, he always begins: “Whaddayawannagive, whaddayawannagive...’’

The co-op earns a commission on auctioned trees and pays a dividend to the owners.

“It just boggles my mind that it grew to this proportion. I just can’t believe it,’’ said Allen Martin, of Mifflinburg. The 67-year-old is an original owner who now describes himself as a semiretired farmer.

“It’s huge. Hopefully that will be in our favor,’’ said Paul Creitz, of Pennsauken, N.J.

Before the auction, Creitz and his brother, Brian, perused bundles of trees and plotted strategy. They own three stores that sell flowers and lawn and garden products, and also sell a few thousand Christmas trees. The brothers, who usually buy from wholesalers, have lost business to big-box retailers. They came to the auction hoping to find premium trees such as Douglas firs at a low enough price for them to undersell bigger competitors.

They examined trunks, estimating how long since trees had been cut. They also said a hauler friend tipped them off to the locations of the freshest trees. Carrying notebooks, they said they planned to refrain from serious bidding until the auction moved there.

Still, they said none of the trees seemed especially old, and trees cut in the last week or so should easily hold up through Christmas. In fact, one of the things they like about the Mifflinburg offering is that the trees come from Pennsylvania, one of the largest Christmas tree-growing states, and North Carolina.

Both states have a wide enough range of temperatures that their trees tend to hold needles regardless of temperatures they’re exposed to after being cut, said the brothers, who have sold trees for 25 years. They contrasted that against trees from the northwestern part of the country, which they said flooded the market a few years ago, but which were prone to early needle loss.

The Christmas tree growers were largely absent Tuesday or stayed in the background. But a long-time Adams County grower and retailer followed the crowd and noted prices. He said he was there only to observe. But the grower, who didn’t want his name published, grimaced at figures he had written on his pad, and said he couldn’t make a profit at those prices. He said it costs 90 cents to $1 to plant a tree, and it typically requires eight years of growth, along with irrigation.

Another longtime grower, from Turbotville, said he used to haul trees to Baltimore and farther to find wholesalers.

“Now, the people from Baltimore are coming here. It just took off,’’ he said.

The Missouri-based National Christmas Tree Association said 28.2 million farmgrown Christmas trees were sold last year, along with 11.7 million artificial trees.

Sales of farm-grown trees are down from about 33 million in 2005.

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