Ocala/Marion: Christmas tree inventory is in flux; if your stand is empty, fill it now

·6 min read

Alex Rucci was shaking limbs, checking shape and giving a good sniff as he sized up a Christmas tree for his family Tuesday at Home Depot in Ocala.

Rucci has shopped around every Christmas season for the past several years to find a memorable live tree for his wife, Anita, and their 11-year-old son, Anthony.

"I wanted to get a real tree for Anthony. This one is nice and full and has (a limb) to place the star on the top," Rucci said.

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Rucci commented on the "real smell" of the 7-foot-plus Fraser fir he purchased for $75.

Rucci said he had looked around and found some local outlets to be "bare" of trees and he was having trouble finding "icicle lights" in the area.

"This is the one," Alex Rucci said after finding the right Christmas tree for his family while shopping on Dec. 1 at Home Depot in Ocala.
"This is the one," Alex Rucci said after finding the right Christmas tree for his family while shopping on Dec. 1 at Home Depot in Ocala.

Local shoppers like Rucci are hitting the big box stores, seasonal businesses and tree farms searching for the perfect tree amid swirling reports of tree shortages and higher prices.

Indeed, some local sellers report they can't get enough trees or additional shipments.

The National Christmas Tree Association (realchristmastrees.org), a 4,000-member trade association, says that upwards of 30 million "real Christmas trees" are sold annually in the U.S.

'We had to turn away (longtime) supporters'

Trinity Catholic High School Athletic Director and baseball coach Tommy Bond said the number of trees for this year’s 18th annual Christmas tree sale to support the Celtics baseball team was cut nearly in half because the supplier in Banner Elk, North Carolina, did not have enough inventory to fill the regular order.

“We usually sell 150 trees, mostly presold, to the same clients. This year we had 85 trees. We had to turn away (longtime) supporters,” Bond said.

Bond said his supplier pointed to a smaller tree crop planting for the 2008-2009 season, during the economic downturn, along with other factors like fire and plant disease.

Brandon Sawyer drags a Christmas tree for customers Trish and Jason Sander, right, on Dec. 1 at The Christmas Tree Guy stand next to Zaxby's on Southwest 27th Avenue in Ocala. While big box stores like Home Depot are not experiencing shortages or delivery issues, Brad Helton, owner of The Christmas Tree Guy stand, said smaller operations are experiencing shortages. He dropped from three selling sites to two this year. "I'll be out of stock in the next week. Normally we have three lots, but this year we can only do two because they're (Christmas trees) physically not available," Helton said. In 2008, during the financial downturn, tree farms in North Carolina did not plant enough trees, and those trees are now matured and being harvested this year.
Brandon Sawyer drags a Christmas tree for customers Trish and Jason Sander, right, on Dec. 1 at The Christmas Tree Guy stand next to Zaxby's on Southwest 27th Avenue in Ocala. While big box stores like Home Depot are not experiencing shortages or delivery issues, Brad Helton, owner of The Christmas Tree Guy stand, said smaller operations are experiencing shortages. He dropped from three selling sites to two this year. "I'll be out of stock in the next week. Normally we have three lots, but this year we can only do two because they're (Christmas trees) physically not available," Helton said. In 2008, during the financial downturn, tree farms in North Carolina did not plant enough trees, and those trees are now matured and being harvested this year.

On Wednesday, Hal Mix and Charles Sander were wrapping up a Shriners benefit Christmas tree sale at a tent adjacent to the Ocala Shriners Club building on Southeast Maricamp Road, east of Southeast 36th Avenue.

"We opened the Wednesday before Thanksgiving with 240 trees and we have 18 left now," Mix said.

Mix indicated the group could not obtain a second shipment.

'We blew through it'

Neil Hatten, in management at the local Home Depot, said a load of 400 trees came in from North Carolina during Thanksgiving week.

"We blew through it," Hatten said. He said a second load of 600 trees came in and he foresees "no problem" with supply for the rest of the season.

Mattina Mende makes a fresh cut on the bottom of a Christmas tree for customer Scott Ortengren, right, on Dec. 1 at the Home Depot. While big box stores are not experiencing shortages or delivery issues, local sellers are.
Mattina Mende makes a fresh cut on the bottom of a Christmas tree for customer Scott Ortengren, right, on Dec. 1 at the Home Depot. While big box stores are not experiencing shortages or delivery issues, local sellers are.

Scott and Sue Ortengren of Oxford also picked out their tree at the Home Depot parking lot tent.

Sue Ortengren said this year's prices were "absolutely" higher than last year, while Ed Forrest with the Brit Clinic of Ocala looked over the trees because a "plastic (tree) just won't cut it."

From three locations to two

Brad Helton operates The Christmas Tree Guy, a seasonal Christmas tree sale business conducted out of multiple tent sites in the Ocala area for at least 35 years.

Helton said he had about 800 trees from North Carolina and Wisconsin on hand Wednesday at his southwest Ocala location. The business has a second location near County Road 326 and U.S. Highway 441.

He said his father started selling trees in Marion County in the 1980s and the Columbus, Indiana, family has had up to three seasonal business locations here, including near Southeast 36th Avenue and Maricamp Road.

But this year he is operating only two tent locations; he doesn't have enough inventory to stock three.

Jerry Eisenmenger II, left, points to the top of a 13-foot Christmas tree as his boss, Brad Helton, center, measures it on Dec. 1 at The Christmas Tree Guy stand in southwest Ocala.
Jerry Eisenmenger II, left, points to the top of a 13-foot Christmas tree as his boss, Brad Helton, center, measures it on Dec. 1 at The Christmas Tree Guy stand in southwest Ocala.

Helton splits his time between here and Indiana. He said the smaller tree crop of 2008 has hurt supply, while the increased number of people staying inside because of the pandemic has heightened demand.

Helton said prices on his trees start at around $54.

Sherri and Fred Rebmann, formerly of Bonita Beach, Florida, now living in southeast Ocala, picked out what they felt was a beautiful 8-foot Fraser at The Christmas Tree Guy location adjacent to Zaxby’s near the Paddock Mall in southwest Ocala.

Brandon Sawyer and J.T. Eisenmenger with The Christmas Tree Guy prepare trees for customers at the southwest Ocala location after Jessica Sawyer, Brandon's wife, and Amanda Foster handle their transactions at the register.

Helton said the crew jokes about Santa doing the white flocking treatment to the trees when he delivers them and the outfit has a “direct line” to Santa.

David Mullins accompanied his daughter, Brandie Mullins, an emergency room nurse at Ocala Regional Medical Center, to the location to find the right tree for Brandie.

Tree aroma was a big factor in their choice.

Jason and Trish Sanders of Ocala wanted a live tree and found one on their first stop.

No nationwide shortage of live Christmas trees, but there can be local shortages

Doug Hundley, spokesman for the Colorado-based National Christmas Trees Association (realchristmastrees.org), said in a phone interview there is "not a nationwide shortage of trees" but there can be localized shortages.

Hundley said a shortfall can happen if a particular seller contracts with a grower who has fewer trees available this year. In some instances, an order from a large retailer could get preferred treatment over an order from a smaller retailer.

"The supply of trees is tight. Less trees were planted in the 2008-2009 crop and the pandemic has added to the demand for trees," he said.

Hundley expects the price of real trees to rise "about 5 to 10 percent" this year due to increased shipping costs and reduced supply.

"The bottom line is: Tree buyers (who encounter a seller who ran out) should shop around. There will be enough real Christmas trees for all who want one this season," Hundley said.

A move back to real trees

Ann Murray has operated Nicholas’ Tree Farm in Summerfield for 30 years and sells an average of about 500 trees a season, which begins for the farm the Friday after Thanksgiving.

The farm specializes in Southern Red cedar, Florida Sand Pines and Carolina Sapphire trees.

Murray said the trees are sold at $8 per foot at the choose-and-cut facility, which affords visitors an outdoor experience.

Michael Songer, of Orange Park, president of the Florida Christmas Tree Association, wrote in an email that many families make tree farm visits a holiday tradition and families with younger children are “moving back to real trees.”

Songer, who also operates a tree farm, wrote: “(We) have had great sales the last few years, and people began taking the smaller trees which reduces larger trees for the following years.”

He stated the tree farm industry is an “agricultural venture” and “we have had drought followed by too much rain” and fields hit by fungus.

“Most tree lots sell fir trees from the North that have been contracted for back in June or July. Not many lots have extra trees. I’ve had several calls wanting 20 to 100 trees for groups, but they are not available this year. I think in about three years there will be extra trees again," he said.

"It goes in cycles," he said.

This article originally appeared on Ocala Star-Banner: Don't delay: Live Christmas trees aren't in abundance this year

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