Christmas Tree Crunch Hits Rim Country

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As Rim country residents pack the Sawmill Theatre to watch the Grinch steal Christmas, a Grinch in the form of a fungus has reduced the Rim country's Christmas tree options to just two living and artificial.

As of Wednesday there were no cut Christmas trees left at the two business establishments Plant Fair Nursery and Wal-Mart Supercenter that are carrying them this year. And neither expects to receive any more. On Thursday, however, a few cut evergreens went up for sale in a make-shift tree-sale lot on the corner of Longhorn Road and Beeline Highway.

Glen and Linda McCombs, owners of Plant Fair, blame the problem on a fungus that has attacked Noble firs in the Pacific Northwest.

"This has been coming on for two to three years," Glen said, "and it will take another two, three or even four years to get the diseased trees out of the field. They've been spraying their fields with lime sulphur and they think they have it under control, but they have to replant and it'll take a few years for them to grow to a size you can harvest."

Aside from the dozen or so trees available at the new lot, Christmas tree options are limited to live trees you can plant in your yard after Christmas and artificial trees that can be stored away and re-used at least until the crisis ends. Both types, however, are in good supply.

The McCombs said they have a wide selection of live trees, starting at $16.99 for a two-gallon Colorado blue spruce and $24.99 for a five-gallon Austrian Pine. Wal-Mart also is sold out of live trees, but garden department manager Bob James said that prices have just been reduced on a good selection of artificial trees, now priced from $13 to $80.

According to Linda, the lack of cut trees has seriously cut into Plant Fair's profits, although she won't know how deeply until after the end of the year.

"Christmas trees are pretty much what we sell in the off-season," she said.

But the Rim country isn't the only place that is experiencing a shortage.

"We have lots of friends who own nurseries in places like Prescott, and they can't keep cut trees in stock either," Linda said.

Watters Garden Center in Prescott has "a good supply of Nobles, Frasiers and (Douglases) an employee said, "but the Target and the big stores in the malls are about out."

The Valley and other large metropolitan areas, however, have enough cut trees to go around.

A spokesperson for Tip Top Nurseries, which has nine locations in the Valley, said their supplies have been more than adequate.

"We're low now," he said, "but there are still lots of places with lots of trees. We received 22,000 trees for all our locations."

Based on sheer volume, Glen said, the bigger towns were served first. Despite the fact that Plant Fair turned its tree orders in last January, it has only received part of a shipment.

"We usually get one shipment direct from the fields of Oregon or Washington, and then we supplement as needed from the wholesale warehouses in the Valley," Linda said. This year the shipment Plant Fair received from the fields wasn't complete, and there were no extra trees available in the warehouses.

Wal-Mart received two shipments but they were not nearly enough to meet the local demand.

Noble firs are the most expensive of the cut trees, and also the most popular, Linda said. The others generally available in this part of the country are Douglas, Grand and Frasier firs, and while they were not affected by the fungus, the lack of Nobles has placed a premium on these less costly varieties.

Glen said that the Nobel firs Plant Fair did receive were obviously ailing. "Their inside branches were brown and they were kind of ugly," he said. "They tried to clean them up as best they could."

Both Glen McCombs and James cited the absence of other Christmas tree outlets in the Rim country as contributing factors. "In the past, Susie Hart has always had a lot over by the old KFC," Glen said. "She told me last January that she might not do it this year. I probably should have taken that as an omen."

James noted that Safeway has sold trees in the past and wasn't doing it anymore. A Safeway spokesperson said the company decided to get out of the Christmas tree business altogether two years ago.

The bottom line, the McCombs said, is this year's Christmas tree supply is by far the worst it's been in their 18 years of business. And since supplies are expected to be tight for the next several years, Glen already has his order done and ready to place for Christmas 2001.

Since the shortage is likely to persist for at least a couple more years, Linda reminds Rim country residents that, "It has always been true up here that you buy your tree early or you risk not having much selection," she said.

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