Some U.S. consumers are going over the Internet or through the woods to find fresh Christmas trees this year, taking advantage of shopping options at opposite ends of the cost spectrum.
In one camp are thrifty folks paying as little as $5 for trees they harvest themselves from national forests. In the other are consumers willing to spend significantly more on trees they order online and have shipped to their doors.
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New Hampshire offers both options: the U.S. Forest Service provides permits for cut-your-own Christmas trees in the 800,000-acre White Mountain National Forest, while several of the state's farms ship trees all over the country.
Chris Proulx, 39, of Conway snagged a tree from the forest the weekend after Thanksgiving and set it up on his porch. On the advice of a forest ranger, he and his family trekked about half a mile into the woods to a clearing where they hoped to find young balsam firs, keeping an eye out for "back up" trees along the way.
Finding a good tree was a challenge, Proulx said. But in the end, it wasn't about the tree. He compares it to taking his kids fishing in Swift River that runs through the forest in the summer.
"You do it not because the best or biggest fish are there. It's more about the experience. It's the same thing with these trees. You're not going to bag a trophy tree," he said. "The average person who comes in might call you a block head and say, 'Nice job, Charlie Brown, you picked out the perfect tree.'
"But if you know that it's from the national forest and you know what it took to get it, it looks better to you than it will to everybody else," Proulx said.
The National Christmas Tree Association says U.S. consumers purchased 33 million farm-grown Christmas trees last year. About a third shopped at big box stores, such as Wal-Mart or Home Depot; just over a quarter bought directly from farms, and just under a quarter purchased trees at retail lots. Internet sales accounted for less than 3 percent of total sales, though the association has heard anecdotal evidence that such purchases are increasing.
In northern New Hampshire, only about 500 of the roughly 11,000 trees sold by Mountain Star Farms in Haverhill go to online customers, but that number is growing, said manager Ben Hoyt. Customers include busy businesspeople, city dwellers without cars who don't want to drag a tree home from a retail lot, and former New Englanders living in warmer climates who miss their traditional trees. A 7-foot tree costs about $50, plus another $50 for shipping.
The trees are boxed and shipped within a day or two of being cut, said Hoyt. He reserves his very best trees for his online customers, who are encouraged to make general suggestions about size, shape and fullness when ordering.
"Christmas trees are such a personal and traditional thing that it's really tough for people to relinquish that control over who picks out their Christmas tree for them, so the pressure on me is pretty extreme from time to time," he said.
Jenny Thibault, 73, of Beverly, Massachusetts, said she used to be so picky about her Christmas tree that her family refused to shop with her. But when the nearby farm she liked closed, she took a chance and ordered a tree from Mountain Star Farms. That was about a decade ago, and she's been a loyal customer ever since.
"I saw their website, and every one of the trees looked awesome," she said. "The only thing I couldn't do was smell it."
Most of the country's 154 national forests allow visitors to harvest Christmas trees. Permit prices vary by location, as do restrictions on tree sizes and harvest locations.
New Hampshire has sold permits for at least 30 years, and the program is growing in popularity. Last year's total — 660 permits — was more than triple the number sold in 2002. Nationally, the forest service sold nearly 196,000 Christmas trees.
Ralph and Arpie Beaman of Thornton used to cut a tree on a friend's property but switched to the White Mountain National Forest several years ago to start a new family tradition with their two children, now 8 and 5. Sometimes, they make multiple trips before finding a tree.
"The pros are it's very inexpensive — it's $5 — we're out in the woods as a family, and it's a great activity for the kids to be outdoors," said Arpie Beaman. "The cons are we have to scout it out."
Unlike Proulx, who cut a short, young tree, the Beamans set their sights higher when they ventured into the woods on a recent Sunday in Waterville Valley. After trekking across a snow-covered beaver dam, they scanned the sky for a well-shaped treetop. They eventually cut down a roughly 20-foot Balsam then chopped off the top 9 feet or so to take home.
"It may look like a lot of hard work but it's fun. We get some exercise doing it, and it's only once a year," said Ralph Beaman. "I think the kids get a lot out of it and, hopefully, they'll be able to pass it on to their kids when they get older."