Real and fake Christmas trees are hit by port backlogs and price hikes. What that means for your shopping

When tree farmer Ethan Hagle was a kid, the rows of Monterey pines on his family’s Christmas tree farm could tower 10 feet tall. The rural Ventura County Christmas tree farm is one of the last remaining in Southern California and draws people from as far as Huntington Beach to cut down their own conifers. 

But today, anyone looking for a tree that reaches even a single-story ceiling will have to settle for a pre-cut tree shipped from the Pacific Northwest. 

During a recent visit to Hagle Tree Farm, this reporter could see clear across the rows of trees. It didn’t even require standing on tiptoe. And reader, this reporter is not tall.

By early December, it’s difficult to find a homegrown tree more than five feet tall near Los Angeles. Photo by Caleigh Wells.

So where are the tall ones? They didn’t get a chance to grow to full height because the sad pandemic Christmas of 2020 was good for Hagle’s business. Extra hoards of people cut down mid-sized trees last year that would have been the big trees this year.

“I'm in the business of making people happy. So I tell them, ‘Go ahead, go cut it down.’ Well, after a few hundred of those, next year rolls around, and you're stuck with a bunch of six-foot trees with no outliers,” Hagle says.

The trees might not be tall, but the prices are. The Tannenbaum industry hasn’t been spared from the recent inflation and supply chain problems. The homegrown trees are listed at $50. The shortest imported fir trees are $100. And this is typical. Expect prices at most Christmas tree lots to reflect the added costs growers are paying this year for water, shipping and labor.

Hagle says he now sells twice as many imported trees as homegrown ones. Photo by Caleigh Wells.

“Especially this year, everything's kind of gone up, maybe anywhere between 10 to 20%,” Hagle says. “The county water is just going up and up and up. The well — there's just not a lot of groundwater. That just doesn't produce a lot.”

Corrine Glover of Los Feliz says at over $200, she spent more on a tree this year than she ever has before. But she understands why the price is going up. She comes here every year, but she started settling for the pre-cut tree about four years ago.

The Glover family says it’s not Christmas without a real tree in their house. This year they spent more money to get one than ever before. Photo by Caleigh Wells.

“They just didn't have the same selection. I mean, years ago, this used to just be fields of trees that you could walk the aisles and pick your tree and cut it down.”

So it might sound like a good time to make the switch from a natural tree to a manufactured one. But that’s not cheap this year, either. Just ask small business owner Bryan Gold, whose family founded Aldik Home in Van Nuys in the 1950s.

For most of the year, it’s a home decor store but Gold boasts that starting in August, they put out one of the best Christmas displays in the country, including a full fake holiday town in the back of the store, a rainbow tunnel of Christmas lights, a stunning array of gigantic fake trees adorned in glass balls and ornate ribbon. This year looks a little different.

“Normally, we would have had everything in by now. But there's new things coming in every week. New shipments, eight pallets of ornaments here, five pallets there, and all that gets priced and thrown out on the floor as quickly as possible,” he says.

Gold says glass balls have gotten especially expensive to ship. This display gets restocked as more pallets of ornaments come in. Photo by Caleigh Wells.

“To the average customer, it looks fairly similar in the store. To us, and especially our merchandise manager and our buying team, it looks incomplete. We don't have all of the styles that we want, [or] certain looks that we wanted to do,” he says.

Their display includes an entire Christmas tree lot with manufactured trees. It might look fuller if some of the trees weren’t on one of those ships parked off our coast, tied up in the infamous traffic jam at the Ports of LA and Long Beach.

“Shipping containers used to cost us about $3,000 to import, and we import about 10 container loads of Christmas trees. This year, we got a deal. And it was about $18-19,000 a container,” he says.

Gold says the store has raised prices and cut profit margins to afford the spike in shipping costs. Photo by Caleigh Wells.

And what’s normally a two-and-a-half week trip across the Pacific is taking up to two months.

Customer Pat Ramsey says the display looks less dramatic than in past years. He’s going home with a green tree with fake snow on it, which isn’t exactly what he wanted.

“Before we had an all-white tree, but they don't really have all-white trees,” he says. “So we've had to kind of switch gears.” 

Pat Ramsey settled for a flocked, green Christmas tree for his restaurant this year. Photo by Caleigh Wells.

He’s shopping for his tree several weeks earlier than he normally does, knowing there’d be a supply shortage. Gold says that’s been a trend, and it explains why this October was the store’s best October yet for Christmas trees.

As for Christmas tree farmer Ethan Hagle, he says even as the price to grow or ship a tree goes up, his family’s farm in Ventura County is not going anywhere. His grandfather owns the land, so they’re safe from rent spikes. And the customers will keep coming. 

“You can go get a tree off a lot anywhere in the United States, but especially around here, there's not a lot of places to go cut your own,” he says.

The short trees will grow and soon become the tall trees Hagle didn’t have this year. But in the meantime, customers might have to dig deeper in their pockets for a big tree, or downsize their expectations.