Biz Buzz: Local tree retailers seeing less green

Some local Christmas tree retailers are worried this holiday season about fewer sales and lower earnings.

“Six years ago I would have made a good profit,” said Shawn Callaway, who is a full-time firefighter at the California Men’s Colony and the owner of the Candy Cane Lane Christmas Trees lots in Paso Robles, Atascadero and San Luis Obispo. “But if I didn’t grow my own trees, I would not be able to stay in business right now.”

It costs $160,000 to operate his 19,000-square-foot tent in San Luis Obispo for the season, a figure that includes labor, trucking, tree farm expenses, rent, insurance, water, diesel, portable toilets and a host of other hidden costs that Callaway calls “flabbergasting.”

Revenues at his lots were down 16 percent last year. After reducing prices and cutting staff by more than 30 percent, current revenues are “tracking almost with last year.”

Callaway splits the blame three ways: the down economy, artificial trees and big-box retail stores such as Walmart and Home Depot that can sell fresh trees for less.

Larry Smitherman, an employee at Candy Cane Lane Christmas Trees in Paso Robles, has noticed a change. “People just don’t have money.

... The reason I know is, 90 percent are using credit cards to buy their Christmas tree.”

A 5-foot-to-6-foot noble fir will cost $44 at Candy Cane Lane and $34.98 at Home Depot. A six-foot artificial tree at Home Depot will cost around $99. Home Depot representatives declined to comment on real and artificial Christmas tree sales.

“We just can’t raise a tree for the price Home Depot sells a tree for,” said Fred Frank, who has owned Hidden Springs Tree Farm in Atascadero since 1962. “But we have 10 acres people can wander around on, with a creek, and people can see wildlife and deer … It’s a pleasant experience.”

Unlike at a retail store, customers at a full-service lot can also have their tree flame-proofed, shaken, sprayed with flocking and tied onto their car.

Because he could not compete with retailers such as Walmart, Peter Felthousen closed Twin Pines Tree Farm in Templeton in 2006 to clear his six acres for olive trees. He is looking forward to processing and selling the fruit year-round. Marsalek’s Christmas Tree Farm of Nipomo closed in 2008, and owner Bob Marsalek declined to comment. Several messages left with the owners of Holloway’s Christmas trees, another longtime grower in Nipomo, were not returned.

According to a recent Harris interactive poll conducted for the National Christmas Tree Association, consumers in 2008 purchased 28.2 million farm-grown trees, a 10 percent decline from the previous year. The 11.7 million artificial trees sold in 2008 were a 35 percent decline from 2007.

However, “If Walmart has 1,100 (artificial) trees left over and sells them for 75 percent off, that creates a problem,” said Callaway. “You’ve now lost 1,100 (real Christmas tree buyers) in this county.” He is starting to believe his Christmas tree business won’t be passed on to his grandchildren.

Rick Dungey, public relations manager for the National Christmas Tree Association, would disagree: “There is a lot of optimism in the industry.” People under 30 are buying real trees at higher rates. Young adults, Dungey said, are more likely to buy a real tree as an environmentally conscious decision, and they are trying to establish traditions.

Cut your own tree

San Luis Obispo County tree farms offering this option:

Holloway’s Christmas Trees, 561 S. Oakglen Ave., Nipomo. 929-6203. Noon to 8 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekends. Pre-cut trees start at $19.95. Cut your own tree for 29.95 and up. A 5-foot to 6-foot noble fir will cost $49.95.

Hidden Springs Tree Farm, 3202 Monterey Road, Atascadero. 466-2220. 12 to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Friday. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekends. $53 for any tree, including firs, pines and spruces. Discounted trees available.

— Julia Hickey

Pair earns status as professionals

Adam Koble and Heather Gray of Thoma Electric in San Luis Obispo recently received their California registration as professionals in electrical engineering. Koble and Gray graduated from Cal Poly with bachelor’s degrees in electrical engineering. To obtain their registrations, each completed an eight-hour engineer-in-training exam, practiced for two years under a professional engineer and submitted support letters from professional peers.

— Julia Hickey