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April 29. 2013 10:16PM

Real Christmas tree campaign held up by Presidential politics, growers say


A recent Harris poll showed 17 percent of U.S. households now put up a natural Christmas tree, like these at The Rocks Estate in Bethlehem, compared to 40 percent in 1990. (UNION LEADER FILE)

As the state's Christmas tree farmers start their spring planting season, their thoughts are turning to Washington, D.C., where they say plans for a nationwide campaign to "buy natural" have been held hostage to presidential politics since late 2011.

Consumers have become familiar with commodity advertising, through campaigns like the "incredible edible egg," "got milk" and "cotton: the fabric of your life."

More than 20 such campaigns exist thanks to legislation passed by Congress in 1996 that authorizes the USDA to create a "check-off program" for commodities if there is widespread support among producers.

A check-off program was first requested by the National Christmas Tree Association in 2009, as sales of natural trees declined and the market share for artificial trees continued to climb.

Since then, it has gone through two industry-wide comment periods, with support from 70 percent of the growers posting comments, and nearly 90 percent of the state and multi-state associations, according to Paul Schroeder, a Wisconsin tree producer who serves as a director for the National Christmas Tree Association,

The marketing campaign would be funded by the growers at a rate of 15 cents per tree sold, and would be administered by an independent 12-member board of growers responsible for developing and approving promotional and research efforts under USDA supervision. Growers who sell fewer than 500 trees a year would be exempt.

The program had cleared all the necessary requirements and was posted in the Federal Register for November 2011, when the Drudge Report proclaimed it "The Obama Christmas Tree Tax."

Within a week, the USDA withdrew the program, and despite prodding from the industry, has shown no inclination to change course.

No one at the USDA will even discuss the proposal.

Michelle Saghafi, a USDA spokeswoman, responded to requests for an interview with a one-sentence email: "Due to significant public confusion about the Christmas Tree Research and Promotion program, it has been delayed to allow the industry an opportunity to educate the public about the program."

Nigel Manley, manager of Rocks Christmas Tree Farm in Bethlehem, is a director on the New Hampshire and Vermont Christmas Tree Association and a representative to the national organization.

He said voting at regional meetings has shown "99 percent support" for funding the marketing program.

The idea does not have universal support, according to Mike Ahern, owner of the Glove Hollow Christmas Tree Farm in Plymouth. "There are some very vocal growers against it; they just want to ignore us," he said.

Schroeder said the Christmas tree industry has met all the USDA requirements but cannot get an answer as to why the program has been stalled.

"We have done everything that the law requires," he said. "The order was approved, then stayed, because the White House was embarrassed. Twenty other USDA-sanctioned check-off programs were not asked to educate the American people about the commodity check-off program. Now our industry is struggling while they play politics. I think our industry is being singled out and mistreated."

Schroeder cited a Harris poll in January that showed only 17 percent of U.S. households now put up a natural Christmas tree, compared to 40 percent in 1990, in part because of the mistaken notion that a fake tree is more environmentally friendly.

"We need a program to reverse that kind of perception," he said.

dsolomon@unionleader.com


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