GLENVILLE, N.C. - This is the season when farms in western North Carolina swap the green of native Fraser fir trees for greenbacks.
Christmas trees - almost exclusively Fraser firs - as well as other holiday greenery are among the region's top agricultural products, bringing in an estimated $100 million a year statewide.
Trucks loaded with scores of baled trees are barreling down two-lane highways throughout the region's rural areas.
Their destinations are as far away as the big city markets from New Jersey to Florida or Texas.
The Fraser fir, which is native to the Appalachian mountains of southwest Virginia and North Carolina, has helped make the state the second-leading producer of Christmas trees nationwide, trailing only Oregon and its Douglas fir, the Asheville Citizen-Times reported Sunday.
"It's the Cadillac of the Christmas trees, and it's what the people want," said grower Wayne Moss, whose farm in the Norton community grows about 80 acres of Fraser firs.
Moss began harvesting his crop of 12,000 trees about a week ago. He plans shipments to South Carolina, Mississippi and Florida.
"The trees look good and sales are nice," Moss said. "We think it's going to be a good year."
The industry is in a transitional stage between its early boom days and maturity, said Craig McKinley, an extension forestry specialist with North Carolina State University in Raleigh.
"I think what we're trying to do now is to look at the issue of sustainability," McKinley said. He predicts tree growers will continue to see strong markets, but believes that fewer growers will be entering the trade.
On the other hand, an agent with the Avery County Cooperative Extension Service sees more room for growth in production and in the number of growers.
"I don't think we've saturated the market," said Jerry Moody. "There's still a great deal of people out there who have not been introduced to the Fraser fir. I don't see a ceiling."