Tree growers have long touted their product as the environmentally friendly way to enjoy the Christmas tradition.
Because new trees are planted every year, the whole "you're killing a tree" accusation lobbed in the direction of real tree buyers just doesn't have the same sting.
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"We sustain the cycle of providing the Christmas trees, and in turn the Christmas trees provide a lot of environmental benefits," said Donna Revak, owner of Revak Nursery in Lakeville.
Now Revak and other Minnesota Christmas tree growers are trying to capitalize on that message with a growing environmentally conscious segment of the population, including the young.
The Minnesota Christmas Tree Association adopted a logo and marketing campaign a few years ago called "Go Green Get Real." The group distributes DVDs to schools and growers even go into schools around Arbor Day in the spring to talk to kids about their replanting efforts and the other environmental benefits of trees. New this year is a TV commercial the association created to promote tree recycling.
"In the future, will you be dumping or recycling your tree?" a child's voice in the ad asks. Revak said the marketing efforts have come as people started putting more thought into what they were buying.
"It was in response to the consumers placing more importance on the environmental aspects of any purchase," she said.
Nationally, that's especially true of younger generations who might be buying their first Christmas trees, said Rick Dungey, a spokesman for the National Christmas Tree Association. Dungey said he still sees ads for fake trees telling people to "save a tree," but they're becoming less common.
"The good news is we know from the research we've been doing in consumer polls over the years that especially among younger people, anyone under the age of 30, they just don't fall for stuff like that anymore," he said. "They're just too savvy. They've been dealing with environmental issues their whole life."
TAKING 'GREEN' A STEP FURTHER
Still, there are some environmentalists who believe Christmas tree growing could be greener. Mother Earth Gardens, an organic garden store in south Minneapolis, will sell organic and "free range" Christmas trees this year, as they have in the past. The organic spruce, balsam fir and white pine come from a farm in Osseo, Wis., where grower Henry Anderson has set aside some of his land for trees to grow more naturally — with limited trimming and no herbicides or pesticides.
While most pesticides or herbicides will likely have washed off by the time a tree is harvested, some could linger and have long-term environmental effects.
"Those chemicals are in the soil forever," said Paige Pelini, one of the owners at Mother Earth Gardens. "There's also the issue of, you're bringing this into your home and being exposed to these pesticides and herbicides."
A 6- to 7-foot organic tree will go for $40-$55. The other type of tree Mother Earth Gardens will sell are wild balsam firs collected from land near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness owned by polar explorer Will Steger and author Jeff Forrester. Steger and Forrester want to clear out the understory balsam to protect the native red pines from fire.
Pelini said the balsams tend to be more of the "Charlie Brown" variety because they're totally wild, but she says that's part of the fun. The store is selling them for $25 apiece.
"They're crazy looking," Pelini said. She and her three daughters set up four small ones in their living room last year. "We had them on different sized stools and buckets and made this little forest so everyone got to decorate their own. It was so cute!"
Real trees still cost more to the consumer than the average artificial tree, assuming you keep the fake one around for a while. So in a down economy, you might expect overall sales of real trees to go down.
Figures from the National Christmas Tree Association show sales were down slightly last year — 27 million real trees were sold compared to 28 million in 2009. But the group reported numbers have fluctuated both ways since 2004 and there isn't really an overall up or down trend to report.
But the Minnesota Christmas Tree Association said their sales numbers have been steady through the recession.
"The tradition of Christmas is to go out and cut a real tree, and the tradition seems to have lasted over the economy," said Pat Olive, who is serving as the association's president this year and owns a small wholesale tree farm just north of the Twin Cities near Stacy.
Jan Donelson, the association's executive director, said she thinks it has to do with the fact that she's seeing more people returning to their family traditions.
"I think people are connecting to family and pulling together to get things done, whether it's a landscaping project or making turkey dinner," said Donelson, whose tree farm is located near Clear Lake in central Minnesota. "People are coming back to simplicity and enjoying the moment."