Neil Courtney sits perched on a sleigh of sorts: A dusty pickup truck from which he’ll run the Buffalo Valley Produce Auction for the 32nd year in a row. The auction attendees, bundled up and waiting patiently behind Courtney’s impromptu pedestal, are here to bid on piles of precut Christmas trees from farms around the East Coast. As the sun peeks over the frosty hillsides of Mifflinburg, Pennsylvania, on this brisk November morning, Courtney prepares for one of the most hectic auctions of his career—and that’s because it’s the bidders’ last chance to find trees for their customers back home, whether that’s in Alabama or Niagara Falls.
Courtney, 64, who manages the auction alongside his team of family members, neighbors, and locals in the Mennonite community, spent the weeks prior to this auction on the phone, calling every supplier and vendor he’d done business with over the past three decades. He had to work harder to find fewer trees to auction off this year, all because of a tree shortage that started eight years ago.
Businesses that sell Christmas trees, such as roadside farm stands, garden shops, and tree farms, often go to auctions like Courtney’s to either buy their entire stock of trees or to supplement the inventory of trees they’ve already grown. For prolific tree farmers, the produce auction is also an opportunity to sell their stock all at once or to sell wares, such as wreaths and roping, on consignment. Whatever the attendees’ reasons, this year’s auction would be filled with hundreds more vendors, suppliers, bidders, and buyers than ever before—all willing to pay a premium.
A Shortage Eight Years in the Making
For the first four years of a Christmas tree’s life, it looks like a measly sprout sticking out of the ground. At that point, farmers can sell the trees as seedlings to other farmers, who then replant them and let them grow for another four years. Most Douglas and Fraser firs will be four to six feet high by that point, which is the shortest height at which most tree farmers will cut them. When there are plenty of midsize trees available to cut, farmers can continue letting some grow.
In the early 2000s, big-box stores like Lowe’s started buying trees from independent farmers at ultra-low prices following tremendous overplanting in the 1990s. Those farmers were desperate to offload overstock trees that had matured in the early aughts, so they sold their lots for cheap. Hundreds of farmers lost business, so they were wary of flooding the market again. That, plus fear drummed up by the 2008 recession, solidified a trend in the industry at the time: Farmers planted very few new trees.
Before 2016, when the sparse crop of trees planted in 2008 began to mature, trees exceeding 10 feet sold for the same price that a small, sparse, young “Charlie Brown” tree will go for this year, according to Courtney. (Douglas and Fraser firs are the most popular species. Last year you could get a 10-foot Douglas fir for about $80; this year it could go for $120.) The current Christmas tree shortage is the product of that gap eight years ago, when high supply and low demand drove down prices, and farmers planted fewer trees as a result. Trees planted in the interim aren’t currently available, simply because they’re not big enough yet.
Norm Schultz, manager of Linvilla Orchards in Media, Pennsylvania, estimates that he’s attended Courtney’s auction for at least a decade; he predicts that the shortage will continue for several more years. The seedlings planted today have already taken four years to grow, and it’ll be another four years until they’re ready to be chopped and sold.
For smaller tree farms like Linvilla, where customers can cut their own Christmas trees (and listen to a live brass band, meet Santa, and watch an ice carving in real time), farmers can’t find sapling stock to grow their own trees, let alone track down mature precut trees to sell this season.
Although the 51,000 trees at Courtney’s auction might sound like a lot, it’s tens of thousands fewer trees than he’s sold in previous years. One year, Courtney auctioned off upward of 100,000 trees; still, he’ll make more money than ever this year.
A Big Problem for Small Business
Many suppliers have stopped supplying roadside tree stands and garden shops at the last minute over the past few years, noting that they can’t justify selling small loads to small businesses when they could instead sell thousands of trees at a time to big-box stores.
Mary Hammett of Hammett’s Landscaping and Garden Center in Forked River, New Jersey, says her longtime tree supplier dropped her business three years ago, and she’s been left high and dry once again this year.
“I’ve been working with different suppliers for all these years, and two of them knocked me off the list,” Hammett says. “One supplier was 50,000 trees short, and the other was 10,000 trees short.”
Norm Schultz of Linvilla describes a similar plight. His farm currently has 40,000 Douglas fir trees in the ground, but he still needs to buy trees at the produce auction for families that don’t want a cut-your-own after a long day of Christmas festivities. “We’re selling more and more cut-your-own because we can’t find enough precuts,” Schultz says. “This year I was supposed to get 2,000, but my guy cut me. I only got 800 trees.”
Hammett and her husband, Kevin, typically buy about 500 trees from a given supplier, but they’re content to leave this year’s auction with any amount of merchandise they can bring home to their customers; the Christmas season accounts for less than 20 percent of her business.
The same goes for the Reeves family, who drove 14 hours from outside Birmingham, Alabama, to buy their lot of trees. Donald Reeves and his son, Eli, run Greasy Co. General Store, a produce stand and restaurant where people from as far as Kentucky flock to pick out Christmas trees, enjoy Greasy’s delicious food, and spend family time around the holidays.
“North Carolina’s the closest thing you can get,” Donald Reeves says of his long annual trek from Alabama to Pennsylvania for trees. He estimates that this year’s trees have cost him about double his bids for similar trees in previous years—and that’s coming from a guy who’s used to the inflated prices, given that he started selling Christmas trees post-2016, after the shortage had already set in.
Despite the stressful prices and competitive bidding at this year’s auction, the atmosphere is decidedly friendly. The industry is tight-knit, auctioneer Courtney says, and he and his colleagues want one another to survive despite this year’s challenges. Courtney hosted industry friends at his cabin during auction week. Donald Reeves offered to buy trees for a competitor in his town. Hammett’s suppliers helped her find a new one after she’d been cut.
The Real Cost of Going to Auction
Another reason this year’s tree shortage is so bad, and the reason it’ll drip all the way down to the prices customers see in stores, is that the peripheral logistics of the tree industry, such as transportation and diesel costs, have also become inordinately more expensive.
Courtney, for example, raised wages for his workers this year due to growing demand for higher pay throughout the country. He also cites the supply-chain kerfuffle that’s impacted nearly every industry that requires shipping. In the days following the auction, Courtney’s team works diligently to get trees to buyers who require shipping by Black Friday.
“We can’t cry pandemic on this one,” says Courtney, who admits that pandemic-related restrictions and inflation aren’t the only reasons behind this year’s high Christmas tree prices. He reiterates that he thinks his workers, who load and unload trucks of trees, tag trees before the auction, cash out bidders, keep track of the auction sales, and make food for the auction attendees, should be paid a fair wage. He says he does so for his employees, but acknowledges that the sudden demand for $15 an hour—double Pennsylvania’s $7.25 minimum wage—has caused a buckle in the industry.
Linvilla’s Schultz sees these inflated prices surrounding the trees themselves—shipping, labor, diesel—reflected in this year’s auction. Along with other auction attendees, he isn’t happy with the higher price tags.
“At an auction, everything you buy is the worst deal because you paid more than anyone else was willing to pay,” he says with a laugh. “I pride myself on going straight to the farm and getting the best deal.”
Due to the inflated prices at auction, Schultz and other small businesses will have to raise their prices too, or see a smaller profit on each tree. He worries about how that price jump will impact his less affluent customers in Delaware County, Pennsylvania.
Meanwhile, on Courtney’s side of things, the auction is a major insurance policy for the ups and downs of the last year. Courtney estimated that he’d sell about $3 million in trees—quite a bit more than his first year back in 1989, when he sold $3,500 in trees. A few days after the auction, which ran for eight straight hours on Friday, he humbly mentions that he well exceeded his estimation, but he declined to share specific revenue figures.
For Mary Hammett, the chaos of the auction is well worth the opportunity to secure trees for her customer base. For the first hour of the auction, Hammett follows Courtney’s truck as rounds of bidding end faster than she can keep up—but she makes her purchase eventually.
“I did it! I did it! I bid and I won,” Hammett says after her first successful bid on a stack of Fraser firs for $77.50 per tree. “I hope my customers will be happy.”
Last year, the same trees cost her about $55 to $60 per tree, and she’s prepared for how she’ll break the news to customers gawking at this year’s prices, which she estimates at $30 to $40 higher than last year’s prices.
“I’m going to say, ‘I know exactly how you feel,’” she says. “I talked to probably 20 different suppliers, farms, everybody—this was my final resort.”