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Christmas Tree Debate (copy)

Rosa Villarreal and Jason Jimenez and their three sons, E.J. Jimenez, left, Josiah Jimenez, center, back to camera, and Jezeriah Jimenez admire a Christmas tree at Lee Farms in Tualatin.

Can "It's Christmas: Keep It Real!" do for the nation's Christmas tree growers what "Got Milk?" did for the dairy industry?

The answer could be important for Oregon's agricultural economy: Oregon is the nation's top producer of Christmas trees. The Christmas tree crop in Oregon in 2017 had an estimated value of more than $92 million. The trees aren't the state's No. 1 crop — that honor still goes to greenhouse and nursery plants — but it's still a significant bit of business.

And the crop is particularly important in the mid-valley. Benton County, for example, consistently ranks among the state's leaders in terms of Christmas tree production.

But the industry is under renewed assault from an old nemesis: artificial Christmas trees. 

It used to be, of course, that these artificial trees were objects of pity, pale imitations of the real thing. You could pick out a fake tree at 50 paces.

That's changed. Although we would continue to argue that a fake tree still is no match for a real tree, there's no doubt that the gap has narrowed in recent years. As an Associated Press news story noted this week, it can be hard these days to tell the difference between a fake and the real thing — especially if you believe that real trees come with lights already attached and ready to be plugged in, the way that some artificial trees now are packaged. (The people who believe this presumably are the same people who believe that chocolate milk comes from brown cows.) 

To some extent, we can understand the convenience of an artificial tree. But we think that whatever advantages they offer are easily offset by the charms of the real thing, no matter how good the fake ones get.   

We apparently are in the minority here. 

It was shocking to see in the AP story that the vast majority of Americans who have a Christmas tree — the number is somewhere between 75 and 80 percent — have opted for the artificial variety. Americans buy an estimated 10 million fake trees every year. (Oddly enough, even though you might think that consumers would just opt to bring the same tree out of storage year after year, the fake-tree market still is growing at about 4 percent a year.)

By contrast, the best estimates are that the Christmas tree industry harvests 25 million or so evergreens every year, and most of those presumably are sold.

But the trends suggest that there's trouble brewing for real Christmas tree operations.

Hence the new campaign for real trees, sponsored by the Michigan-based Christmas Tree Promotion Board. The campaign is funded by a 15-cent fee that tree farmers pay for each tree they harvest.

The goal of the "It's Christmas: Keep It Real!" campaign is to connect with so-called "millennial moms" who might be in their first houses with their first children and starting up their own holiday traditions. The campaign features Instagram and Facebook posts showing real families as they search for the perfect tree, either at tree farms or in lots featuring precut trees. 

The families targeted by the campaign "may never have done this before," said Marsha Gray, the executive director of the Tree Promotion Board. "And we need to help them discover it and figure out how to include it in their holiday."

If the campaign misses the mark now, real tree farmers could wind up losing a generation of customers — and, already, those farmers are feeling the pinch. It's a business where you have to be thinking ahead at least a decade — the time it takes for a seedling to grow to maturity — and it can be hard to assess what the demand will be in the future.

So here's hoping that "It's Christmas: Keep It Real!" strikes a chord with Americans across the nation. The holidays already are filled with so much artifice. It would be a shame to see that artificiality extend to our Christmas trees. (mm)

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