Michigan's lower Christmas tree supply this year linked to 2008 housing crash

Christmas tree farm (John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Tom Muir has been in the Christmas tree business for 30 years. But it's only the last two years that have presented obstacles he's never seen before. 

Muir, who runs the Ho Ho Ho Co Christmas tree retail outlet in Bloomfield Hills and Farmington, sold trees "like toilet paper" last year. Despite ordering 2,500 trees from Michigan and North Carolina, he ran out by Dec. 13.

This year? "We're prepared. I'm bringing up a few more," he said. About 150 more. 

This season, real Christmas tree growers and buyers will have to contend with issues both immediate and a long time coming. Severe weather and extreme temperatures in the summer took a toll on Oregon's tree growers. The heatwave that cooked the Pacific Northwest likely damaged some of the nurseries' stock that would have gone out for delivery this season.

But it's not severe weather that will hurt Michigan tree growers this season, Dr. Bert Cregg at the Department of Horticulture at Michigan State University says. Since Michigan and North Carolina provide most of the eastern U.S. with their Christmas trees, western U.S. climate issues aren't a problem here.

However, tree stock might be a bit low because of what happened during the Great Recession.

"Go just after the crash when the housing market crashed and the economy was in recession, a lot of growers got out of the business," Cregg said. "Some reduced planting."

Comparing it to a rat in the belly of a snake, Cregg says "It takes a while to work that through the system."

"When growers cut back on growing or got out in the early 2010s, that's part of what's leading to lower supply," he said. "The other side of it is now Covid."

COVID-19 may be turning into a catchall reason for why industries are struggling, but in the Christmas tree market, it depends on if the tree is real or artificial. 

Like so many other industries this holiday season, the pandemic continues to send ripples through the supply chain market. "The economic instability caused by COVID-19 and the impacts of extreme weather has affected all parts of the global and U.S. supply chain, and Christmas trees are no exception," said the American Christmas Tree Association.

Cregg says there will be an uptick in demand for real Christmas trees, but that's because people will be staying around their families.

In hopes of preparing for the demand uptick and slight shortage in trees, Muir says he'll have 2,650 trees, ranging from the popular Douglas and Fraiser firs to new kinds like the Korean Fir. 

"What's hurtin' me is the 10-12 footers. I'm low on those - probably going to have 70 or 80 of those total. Normally I have hundreds of those."

There are still plenty of 7, 8, and 9-foot trees that Muir says he'll have in stock. And like last year and many before it, the Ho Ho Ho Co. will do delivery and setup within a 10-mile radius of either store's location.  

Despite the shortage, Cregg says that anyone shopping for a Christmas tree should be able to find them easily enough. Customers should just make sure to buy early for the best selection. That goes for the choose and cut farms as well as the wholesale farms and retail lots.

The Michigan Christmas Tree Association has a complete list of farms that customers can go to. Learn more here