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Not even Christmas trees could escape the everything shortage

A sign in outside Good Shepherd Thrift Store in Dayton. The shortage throughout the country is due to a perfect storm of factors.
Leila Goldstein
A sign outside Good Shepherd Thrift Store in Dayton. The shortage throughout the country is due to a perfect storm of factors.

If you recently bought a Christmas tree, or tried to, it might have been a bit more difficult this year because there’s a shortage across the country. Spring Valley Tree Farm in Greene County took a new approach to manage the demand this holiday season.

Down the road from the farm on the last day of sales there was a big sign that read: CHRISTMAS TREES SOLD BY RESERVATION ONLY SOLD OUT FOR THIS WEEKEND. The parking lot at the farm was full, with trees strapped onto car roofs ready to leave. A worker at the entrance was checking off names like a bouncer at a nightclub.

Patty Johns of Kettering was able to snag a reservation during the last couple of hours of sales. She came with 13 of her family members to pick out a tree, a tradition they have been doing for 31 years. For her, getting a reservation is what brought her to this farm because most of the other places didn’t have any trees left.

“We just looked online and most of the places already, the first weekend in December, were sold out,” she said. “[Spring Valley Tree Farm] had a couple spots and we just went online and made the reservation.”

Her son Andrew said, with less of a crowd, it only took 15 minutes to find the perfect tree.

“This experience finding the tree was a lot faster than other years because usually we spend like an hour on the whole field and then never decide on one,” he said.

The new reservation system kept things moving smoothly and families were guaranteed to get a tree. But this bucolic scene was not what the farm looked like this time last year.

“On the day after Thanksgiving, when we opened the gate, we had 250 customers at the gate and it never got lower than that for the whole day, and the next day, and the next day,” said owner Matt Mongin.

Mongin said last year he ran out of trees in just three days. For the next two weeks he was inundated with angry phone calls from loyal customers, some of whom had been coming for the last 15 years. He has worked through the highs and lows of this business, but said this year is different.

“I have no place to send someone to get a Christmas tree after next weekend because they're literally going to be all gone,” he said. “We've never been in that situation before.”

Matt Mongin, owner of Spring Valley Tree Farm in Greene County.
Leila Goldstein
Matt Mongin, owner of Spring Valley Tree Farm in Greene County.

The shortage throughout the country is due to a perfect storm of factors. There were wildfires and heatwaves in the Northwest, where most of the commercial trees grow. Less trees shipped to big retailers in Ohio means more demand at smaller farms.

There is the also residual effect of the Great Recession more than a decade ago.

“People planted less,” Mongin said. “The whole industry kind of shrunk. Then when we tried to expand again, it is not a flexible industry.”

The farmers have a difficult time adapting to abrupt changes in the market because Christmas trees can take 10 years to grow to be six or seven feet. Plus, last year there were more customers. People were stuck at home and were not traveling to visit extended family, so more homes wanted trees.

But Mongin sees a broader problem for the industry: aging farmers.

“A lot of the farmers like me, lots of gray hair. We're retiring,” he said. “These farms are diminishing in number and as a result, more demand, less supply.”

Looking to the future, there will likely be ripple effects of the pandemic. Mongin wonders if the low supply will push people towards buying fake trees or possibly virtual Christmas trees.

But as for now, he has decided to bring his farm into the digital age to avoid a repeat of 2020. He paid for an online ticketing service and required customers to reserve a time slot to pick out their tree.

“We've had no lines on the road. We've had no congestion in the parking, no safety issues,” he said. “My staff has been tailored to handle that number of people and life has been really good.”

While working at the station Leila Goldstein has covered the economic effects of grocery cooperatives, police reform efforts in Dayton and the local impact of the coronavirus pandemic on hiring trends, telehealth and public parks. She also reported Trafficked, a four part series on misinformation and human trafficking in Ohio.