Tree growers say they are are optimistic that tough times won't stop most shoppers from sticking to their holiday tradition of buying live trees.
Jessica Woltz spent Sunday hugging Christmas trees at Brock's Tree Farm in Apex, N.C. Keeping to her family's tradition of cutting their own tree, it is her usual way of choosing a stout one.
"If my arms can go all the way around it, it's not big enough," said Woltz, 23.
Tree growers say they are are optimistic that tough times won't stop most shoppers like Woltz from sticking to their holiday tradition of buying live trees.
"Consumers are telling us that they won't have as much under the Christmas tree this year, but they will have a tree," said Linda Gragg, director of the N.C. Christmas Tree Association.
Some growers think the economy may help tree growers edge out their pricier artificial competition. "The real tree industry is going to make inroads against the fake trees, though the market might be down overall," said Scott Ballard, who grows Fraser firs in Ashe County.
Even if sales fall short, don't expect rock-bottom prices. Tree growers are a patient lot.
"A tree in the ground is an asset, and if you don't cut it, it's still good," said Ballard, who ships 7-foot-tall Fraser firs anywhere in the United States for $99. "It's worth more next year."
A 22-year veteran of the business, Bobby Brock grows just about every kind of Christmas tree he can at his farm in western Wake County. He grows red cedars for the old-timers who remain loyal decades after its days as the tree of choice in the South have passed. He grows Scotch pines because former Pennsylvanians crave them.
And he ships in Fraser firs from the mountains, even though anyone who visits his lot has passed four parking lot tree joints on the way.
Brock does a brisk business in the Fraser firs, the variety that dominates the North Carolina Christmas tree business.
"People need to have a good selection," Brock said. "I have a tree for every taste and a price for every budget."
Brock's farm sells cut-your-own trees 5 feet tall and higher for $10 to $60.
The cheaper ones reward buyers willing to deal with a crooked stump, a bare spot or other blemishes. The higher-priced ones will have a perfect conical shape and even fill all around.
Debbi Gillentine and her family were scaling back their traditional trek to the mountains to cut their own Fraser fir, an annual trip that usually involves staying overnight. Instead, they chose a 6 1/2-foot-tall white pine from Brock's lot for $35.
Gillentine said her 13-year-old son, Zach, picked out the tree, with help from 4-year-old Zander -- subject to veto power by their parents.
"We didn't want to spend all that money on gas this year," she said.