As the U.S. economic outlook grows darker, one business sector that seems to be unaffected is the North Carolina Christmas tree farm. As more people stay home for the holidays, they don't want to give up their tree, even it it costs $30, no small amount in hard times.
There are more than 1,600 tree farmers in North Carolina, with an estimated 50 million trees being grown on 25,000 acres, much of it former cattle farms. More than 2 million Fraser firs, considered the Ferrari of holiday trees, come from Ashe County, in the northwestern part of the state.
The week before Thanksgiving is the busiest for the tree business. There is money to be made in the "Choose and Cut," farms at which people hike through the rows, saw in hand, searching for the perfect tree. But only a small percentage of trees are harvested that way, leaving the pre-cut businesses to set the pace for the Christmas season. If the trees remain on the farms after Thanksgiving, they may not sell, or they might have to wait until next year to be harvested.
It was a cold, snowy week in Ashe County. Yet there was no choice but to harvest. Over the border in rural Virginia, where the trees are loaded, workers filled 30 semi trucks a day, at 600 trees per truck, for seven straight days. The farm shipped 125,000 trees out of state, mainly to Florida, using 30 full-time, local employees, and up to 60 immigrants, who are in the U.S. on temporary guest worker visas.
Without the immigrants, who return year after year, this feat would be nearly impossible. The trees must be cut, hauled, baled (wrapped) and brought to a loading yard. Fraser firs prefer the high, steep mountain sides, so the majority of the work is done by hand, as workers cut the trees, then drag them to a staging area near a road. There, the trees wait for a ride to the yard, where, for optimal freshness, they continue their journey in climate-controlled trucks.
Some find homes as far away as Japan. Others are sold by recovering substance abusers and church groups in a parking lot or a mall near you.