Christmas season is in full swing, and if the newly-formed Christmas Tree Promotion Board is doing its job right, you'll want to buy a real tree. You'll crave the sweet aroma of sap and the soft lustre of real pine needles. You'll accept nothing less.
The board is a government-backed marketing program that's devoted to protecting Christmas tree farmers against the threat posed by artificial trees, the industry's arch nemesis. The uber-seasonal industry group, based in Colorado, is focused on "increasing the value and demand for cut Christmas trees." And it has a state-mandated source of funding: by law, growers must pay $0.15 from every Christmas tree sold to the organization.
Some might describe the work of the quasi-government entity as Christmas tree propaganda, but Tim O'Connor, its executive director, doesn't see it that way. "Propaganda is often fiction. We have no fiction, just facts and the story of the Christmas tree," he said.
The facts, as he likes to point out when given the chance: the Christmas tree industry's impact on local economies, and traditions surrounding the holiday plant.
Among other things, the board aims to maintain profitability for the country's Christmas tree farmers, who a decade a ago confronted a serious oversupply problem as too many real trees were harvested and fake trees became more popular. Prices plummeted.
"Growers were selling at a loss," said O'Connor. Some even left the business. "They've only been profitable again in the last few years."
The industry is still challenged by artificial trees, but with challenge comes opportunity. In this case, the opportunity is an estimated 25% U.S. consumers who are open to buying a real tree or an artificial tree, according to data from O'Connor.
The Christmas Tree Promotion Board isn't technically a government office, although it is overseen by the US Department of Agriculture, which appoints the members of its board and approves the group's budget and marketing materials (One rule: it can't use disparaging words like "fake" to describe artificial trees.)
Other corners of agriculture have similar marketing organizations: ranchers are required to pay $1 per head of cattle sold to the Cattlemen's Beef Board, mushroom growers pay $0.0055 per pound to the Mushroom Council, mango importers pay $0.0075 to the National Mango Board. There are groups for honey, watermelon, and popcorn too. Any industry can propose a program that requires all producers to pay fees to promote the commodity, and the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service will consider it "if the proposal has substantial industry support."
It's all familiar territory to O'Connor, a commodity marketing veteran who has worked with beef producers on the well-known "Beef. It's What's For Dinner" campaign, as well as the marketing organizations for avocados and potatoes.
All these pennies growers pay add up. The Christmas Tree Board collected $1.8 million during the last holiday season. It maintains its own database of growers and charges interest and late fees if they don't pay.
Among other activities, this $0.15-per-tree fee has funded research that shows real trees are most popular among young families with children — Baby Boomers switch to artificial trees when their kids move out of the house. So this year the group developed a campaign to court family-oriented millennials that's ever-colloquially named "It’s Christmas. Keep It Real," with Neil Patrick Harris as one of its spokesmen.
"CTPB’s marketing campaign prioritizes Millennial families as its core target because of the long-term importance of not losing these consumers for the future," O'Connor wrote in a post online. By mid-December, the campaign's Facebook page had roughly 2,000 followers.
The board also found that many trends in the food world — the desire for natural, fresh, local, sustainably-grown products — apply in the Christmas tree business too.
As it promotes cut trees to consumers, one activity the board is expressly prohibited from is lobbying politicians. That is the job of an industry group called the National Christmas Tree Association (not to be confused with the American Christmas Tree Association, which was founded by an artificial tree wholesaler). O'Connor also happens to be the Executive Director there.
O'Connor said any funding the association receives from the board must have a designated use that does not include lobbying. To influence policy, the association contracts lobbyist Craig Regelbrugge, senior vice president of AmericanHort.
Among the association's main concerns is labor policy, which faces changes under the Trump presidency. "Ours is an industry substantially reliant on foreign-born labor," Regelbrugge wrote in a post on the association's website.
"The Trump transition team point persons on immigration have called for tougher, some would say heavy-handed, immigration laws." The new administration could, for instance, rescind deferred action from deportation, limit the entry of refugees, and make it harder for foreign workers to get visas, he said.
If the US doesn't maintain tree-friendly policies, Regelbrugge warned, "Canada would be happy to grow all the Christmas trees."