Holidash took a cross-section of tree prices across the country, and our informal research found that costs fluctuated in every location, from coast to coast.
The cost of a Christmas tree ranged from about $100 for a seven-foot Noble fir in Orange, CA, to $45 for a seven-foot balsam fir in Urbana, IL. For the same $50, you could buy a balsam in Manhattan or chop one yourself in Leicester, MA.
So many factors -- labor costs, fertilizer, transportation, security -- affect tree prices that there's no standard rate for a Christmas tree, no matter where you buy yours.
Rick Dungey, public relations manager for the National Christmas Tree Association, explains that trees are "a 'what the market will bear' product. It's ultimately consumer-driven." For instance, customers in the heavily forested Pacific Northwest will likely value Christmas trees differently than buyers in Nevada or Washington, DC.
Add to that the fact that the Christmas tree season is a short one. Dungey puts it in perspective: "You only have a three to four week period [to sell] 30 million trees. That makes it really chaotic and volatile.... Nobody buys a Christmas tree in May."
There is no universal standard for pricing Christmas trees; they can be priced by the foot, by a height range, by tree species, or as a flat rate. "The only consistency is inconsistency," Dungey chuckled.
Sometimes the popularity of a certain type of tree will boost its cost. Gregg van Horn, president of the Indiana County Christmas Tree Growers' Association (based in the Christmas Tree Capital of the World), pegged Fraser fir as a high-end option. Fraser firs are particularly in demand since they retain their needles longer than other trees.
Rarity can also affect a tree's cost. Scott Lechner, operational manager of New York City's Soho Trees, points out his Nordmann firs. "It's like a pet," he says, "a grown tree from some unusual old-timers in Washington state. They only come from elevations of 7,500 feet or up. They look like they're from a storybook." This year, he got less than a hundred of this species, so the prices accordingly rise.
Balsam trees can fall on the lower end of the price spectrum, according to several growers, since their needle retention may not be as high. Still, they have a lovely classic shape. If they're well-sheared, Lechner asserts, "they're more symmetrical and they have that old-fashioned, Rockwellian look to them."
What about where you buy your tree? Is a tree farm purchase always more affordable than that lot on the corner? Not necessarily. While cutting a tree at a farm will mean that your tree is fresher, it's not always cheaper. According to our experts, Christmas tree prices vary widely at both choose-and-cut tree farms and pre-cut tree lots.
One of the cheapest options is also one of the most adventurous. Some US National Forests sell tree permits for as little as $5. You then find, cut and haul your prize on your own. What you save in price, though, you will more than make up for in effort. Ready to strap on your snowshoes?
The best rule of thumb is to shop around for your Christmas tree. As Dungey emphasizes, "There are lots of options, no matter where you are... it's not a commodity that can be encapsulated like [a barrel of oil]." Dungey recommends doing some good old-fashioned research before you buy. "Call [the farm or lot] ahead of time and ask them what their pricing structure is, so that you're not surprised!"
Lechner raises the age-old "you get what you pay for" point: Not only should you search for fresh trees that will last through the holiday season, but you should also seek out a reputable vendor who will steer you to the best tree for your buck.
"I would never buy something from somebody who didn't know more about that product than I [do]," Lechner asserts. A good seller should know where the trees come from and when they were cut. Lechner compares Christmas trees to fresh, hand-picked fruit that should be rotated quickly.
Despite the zig-zagging costs, one element remains steady: the growers' and vendors' efforts to keep retail prices stable. "The cost of growing a tree has skyrocketed," J.D. Fleming of Fleming's Christmas Tree Farms in Indiana, PA, observes, "but people are keeping prices stable. We want to make the trees affordable for today's economy... and we are trying to create the best possible trees."
"Maybe people are buying [a tree] that's a foot shorter now than in years past," he says. "Still, a Christmas tree is something that makes a family feel warmth and comfort." That's truly the Christmas spirit.
Check out our expert tips for finding the perfect tree!