Increased demand for real Christmas trees this year heightened an ongoing shortage of this seasonal product.
Some Fraser fir tree retailers, including an Avery County-based vendor who sells them at North Wilkesboro’s Memorial Park each year, say they weren’t able to start the season with the inventory volume they wanted.
Choose-and-cut Christmas tree operations in adjoining mountain counties reported running out of certain sizes of Fraser firs the weekend after Thanksgiving.
Supplies of white pine and Fraser fir wreaths and roping are also down.
There was uncertainty about how COVID-19 might impact the Christmas tree industry, but it soon was apparent that tree sales would benefit from increased consumer spending on life at home during the pandemic.
In response, big box retailers pushed growers to provide them with real trees earlier this year.
Some Christmas tree wholesalers and retailers increased their prices this year, but others held steady.
Kathy Shore of Kathy Shore Nursery LLC in Sparta said she raised her prices in 2019 and decided it was best to leave them unchanged now due to all the instability in 2020.
Shore and others in the industry say the Christmas tree shortage — especially Fraser firs — is primarily tied to a recession that officially began in December 2007.
“For six to eight years we didn’t make any money,” said Shore.
Growers planted fewer tree seedlings, fewer seedlings were available and many growers went out of business then.
It takes an average of seven to 10 years in the field to produce a 6- to 7-foot-tall Fraser fir Christmas tree once a seedling is planted. They generally require an elevation of at least 3,000 feet above sea level.
North Carolina is the nation’s second largest producer of Christmas trees, primarily from trees grown in Alleghany, Ashe, Watauga and Avery counties. Christmas trees are an $86 million industry in the state.
The Fraser fir, native only to the highest elevations of North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee, represents over 90.4% of all Christmas trees grown in North Carolina. Frasers are grown on around 40,000 acres in the state for Christmas trees.
Ashe is the nation’s top county in Christmas tree production and also is home to the N.C. Department of Agriculture’s Upper Mountain Research Station.
This 454-acre research station, at an elevation above 3,200 feet off N.C. 88 in Laurel Springs, has a 5.5-acre Fraser fir seed orchard and greenhouse using advanced genetics from the North Carolina State University Christmas tree breeding program.
Efforts underway there include developing Fraser firs of improved growth, needle retention and disease resistance and overall consistent quality.
About 90% of North Carolina growers now get most of their Fraser seedlings from nurseries in the Pacific Northwest, said Brad Edwards, an integrated pest management assistant with N.C. Cooperative Extension in Ashe County.
Some operations, like Kathy Shore Nursery, grow their own seedlings from seeds.
Edwards said growers need a reliable source of certified seeds, which means coming from known parents and being handled in ways that maintain genetic purity. There currently is no certified seed for Fraser fir, but the plan is for the Upper Mountain Research Station to change that.
Jeff Owen, an NCSU Extension Christmas tree specialist who helped with the orchard project, said that he expects trees developed at the research station to grow faster and more uniformly and retain needles longer.
Owen said as much as two years could be cut off the time it takes to grow a marketable Fraser fir.
He said the orchard culminates decades of research through N.C. State’s Christmas tree genetics program, led by Professor John Frampton of NCSU College of Natural Resources. Frampton recently retired.
Owen said the first seed harvest is expected in 2030.
Final preparations are being made at the Wilkes Ministry of h.o.p.e. Toy Store to again help fulfill the Christmas wishes of hundreds of local youths.
As Ministry of h.o.p.e. Director John Triplett explained, this year it includes changes to comply with Gov. Roy Cooper’s inside gathering limit of 10 people to help reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Instead of parents shopping for participating youths when the Toy Store is open for a week at the ministry’s building on N.C. 268 East, they were asked to submit wish lists for their children.
A time will be assigned for parents to pick up gifts at the ministry building on Thursday or Friday of this week or Monday, Tuesday, Thursday or Friday of next week.
“We were afraid that not many would submit lists, but we received them for about 90%” of the 400-plus participating families by Friday, said Triplett.
“We asked them to include the one gift a child really wants” on each list and efforts are made to get that item, he said. This may mean buying the gift from a store with donated funds or it may be among donated gifts.
“We also asked them to tell us what the child really likes… what their interests are” to provide guidance for the other gifts in each bag.
Volunteers are provided with guidelines for age-appropriate gifts. Youths up to age 18 can participate.
Each youth receives up to $60 in gifts and parents pay 10 cents on the dollar, or up to $6 per child.
Triplett said youths must be referred by an outside party to participate. About 90% are referred by staff of the Wilkes County Schools.
About 20 veteran toy store volunteers are filling bags with gifts for each child, based on lists submitted. Triplett said only 10 people are working on this at a time to comply with Cooper’s order.
“Ordinarily, we would have about 100 volunteers a day working” at the Toy Store.
Donations of toys or other gifts can be made to the Toy Store from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Thursday or Friday of this week or on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday or Friday of next week. Only new items are accepted.
Triplett said arrangements can be made to accept gifts at other times by calling 336-903-1414.
He said financial donations to help the ministry purchase gifts can be mailed to Wilkes Ministry of h.o.p.e, 514 Elkin Highway, North Wilkesboro, N.C. 28659.
The Angel Tree at the Walmart Su%er on U.S. 421 in Wilkesboro has tags with ages, genders and suggested toys — but no names — of participating children.
The Toy Store was started in 2004 and initially served 100 families.
The Wilkes Ministry of h.o.p.e. is a servant ministry of the Brushy Mountain Baptist Association. It also includes a food pantry, woodshed (firewood), baby closet and is the association’s hub for other outreach efforts and handyman projects.
The ministry is supported primarily by Brushy Mountain Baptist Association churches but other churches, civic groups, businesses and individuals contribute with food, wood, baby supplies, monetary donations and volunteers.
As of Tuesday, Wilkes County no longer ranked among the top 10 North Carolina counties in new cases per 100,000 people for the prior two weeks.
Wilkes was among 10 N.C. counties identified by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services on Nov. 23 as having “critical community spread,” based partly on new cases per 100,000 people in the two weeks ending Nov. 19.
Also factored into this determination were percentages of COVID-19 tests coming back positive and impact of COVID-19 cases on each county’s primary hospital.
Wilkes ranked fourth in numbers of new cases per 1,000 people in the two weeks ending Nov. 19 with 574.5. On Tuesday, Wilkes ranked 16th among all 100 counties with 623 new cases per 100,000 people in the prior two weeks.
These numbers for counties adjoining Wilkes on Tuesday were Alexander, 869; Yadkin, 810; Caldwell, 657; Surry, 632; Iredell, 569; Ashe, 522; Watauga, 568; and Alleghany, 305.
North Carolina on Tuesday reported its highest count of COVID-19 hospitalizations, with more than 2,000 patients currently hospitalized.
The health department also reported that 50 Wilkes residents have died from COVID-19, whie the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) reported 51 Wilkes deaths. Wilkes Health Department Director Rachel Willard said the two most recent deaths, both people in their 70s, occurred in Wilkes on Friday and Sunday.
As of Tuesday, 2,733 Wilkes residents had tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began in March.
Also on Sunday, Wilkes had 221 active COVID-19 cases and a total of 2,683 cases since the Pandemic started in March. In the 14 days ending Sunday, Wilkes had 402 new cases.
Last week, the health department provided COVID-19 case numbers for identified clusters and outbreaks in the county. A cluster is five or more linked cases at the same facility and an outbreak is two or more cases in a congregate living facility.
As of Nov. 24, case numbers for current outbreaks at congregate living facilities in Wilkes included Westwood Hills Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, 76 residents and 85 staff; Wilkes Health and Rehabilitation, 31 residents and 23 staff; Rose Glen Manor, nine residents and eight staff; Accordius, 28 residents and 15 staff; and Wilkes Assisted Living, 26 residents and five staff.
Willard said Accordius had 68 COVID-19 cases as of Sunday.
The health department said Eckerd Connects in Boomer had 11 cases earlier. DHHS reported that as of Nov. 24, the Wilkes County Jail had two COVID-19 cases.
Also last week, the health department reported COVID-19 clusters at two churches, a meat processing plant (Tyson Foods Inc.) and three occupational settings, but a department spokesman said the number of cases at each couldn’t be released.