RALEIGH - Parking lots sit packed with Fraser firs, fat green beauties shipped from the North Carolina mountains guaranteed to hold the heaviest ornament without bending a limb or shedding a needle.
But this years harvest brings a pair of gifts for holiday shoppers: high-quality trees and bargains for anyone willing to move fast.
North Carolina counts 1,600 growers turning out roughly 5 million trees a year, a statistic that ranks the states harvest second nationwide behind Oregon. This years 19-foot White House tree came from Peak Farms in Ashe County.
This falls cold and wet mountain weather spells good news for firs, which go dormant and strengthen their needles when its frosty. That chill means fewer needles on the carpet, more on the branches.
We had some folks with trees in the ground that had snow on them, said Bill Glenn, a marketing specialist with the state Department of Agriculture. Youre going to see top-quality trees.
Farm income from Christmas trees totaled $85 million last year, though analysts say prices have been trending down for several years due to competition from fakes.
Real-tree dealers face heavy competition from artificial trees, which coupled with the down economy has put pressure on lower prices, said John Frampton, forestry professor at N.C. State University. But the industry expects the same slow uptick that much of the economy is seeing.
Weve had an abundance of phone calls, said Jennifer Greene, executive director of the NC Christmas Tree Association. Its going to be a good year.
Theres also been an overabundance of live trees in recent years, especially the mid-sized Fraser firs. So the bargains might be found at big-box retailers such as Home Depot and Lowes, which have more leverage in negotiating prices with growers.
Lowes was selling 6- and 7-foot trees for $34.97 Monday; Home Depot, $31.97. At the state Farmers Market, growers reported no change in their prices, though Goss Family farms in West Jefferson reported a 15 percent increase after the first holiday weekend of the season.
How long that savings lasts, though, no one can say.
Youre not going to see those prices everywhere you go, Glenn said.
One thing working in real-tree sellers favor: Thanksgiving came early this year, giving us five Thursdays in November an extra week to shake branches, size up fatness and strap the perfect tree to the car.
Staff writer Kelly Poe contributed to this report.