Wednesday, December 26, 2007

In N.C., drought puts a damper on sales of real Christmas trees …A record North Carolina drought and temperatures close to 80 degrees Fahrenheit this month are creating trees like the one in "A Charlie Brown Christmas," the 1965 animated television classic in which a forlorn fir's branches are bare. North Carolina, the largest US seller of cut trees last year for the holiday, may contribute to a second straight season of declining sales, the National Christmas Tree Association predicts. More consumers are skipping outdoor lots and buying artificial trees. Some who choose real ones are paying higher prices after the drought pushed up farmers' costs.

The state's crop of 5 million Christmas trees sold for $134 million last year at retail. Its 1,600 growers raised about the same number this year, shipping them across the country. Most are Fraser firs grown in the western mountainous area around Asheville. "They are drying out quickly," said Eric Cobb, manager of the Fred & Dot Wagoner Christmas Trees lot in Greensboro, where buyers shopped in shorts and flip-flops.

Cultivating trees has been a struggle. The lack of rain, which also caused water shortages in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama, killed as many as 40 percent of saplings. Money spent on fertilizer was wasted because the parched earth couldn't absorb it. Rainfall in Asheville was 35.4 inches through Dec. 17, a quarter less than normal, according to the National Weather Service.

Governor Michael Easley called on residents to cut water use by half in October, saying the drought is the worst on record. Two-thirds of North Carolina is in an "exceptional drought," the most severe category, according to the US Drought Monitor in Lincoln, Neb. Higher costs for fertilizer, fuel, and labor prompted James Pitts in Plumtree to increase prices on his trees for the first time in four years. An 8-foot tree sells for about $76 retail, 19 percent more than last year.

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