MONETTA - The old-fashioned yuletide tradition of choosing a real Christmas tree, then chopping it down, is rekindling as a half-century passion for artificial ones fades, the National Christmas Tree Association says.
Its members, including growers, say more families are choosing for hand-planted wood over plastic this holiday season than anytime since artificial trees came into vogue. One reason is that farmers in South Carolina and Georgia have a new sales pitch to push their Christmas harvest.
The sales pitch, as commercial as it is competitive, changes slightly from patch to patch but has a constant message: As people celebrate the season of "peace on Earth," farmers say they also should give back to the Earth something that's good for the environment. They say real trees do that, and for every one cut for Christmas, three more are planted to continue the cycle. Nearly 70 million seedlings were sown this year alone.
To promote home-grown harvests, the Christmas Tree Association has invested in an aggressive ad campaign against plastic look-alikes by appealing to Americans' environmentally friendly side. Go to any choose-and-cut farm in South Carolina and Georgia, and you'll likely see a tag dangling from a tree limb that says, "During its growing years, this tree cleansed the air, provided you with oxygen, protected your water supply, made a home for wildlife and beautified some previously barren land."
Apparently, people are paying attention. That's good for tree farmers, but potentially bad for businesses that sell plastic trees. The National Christmas Tree Association says that, based on marketing surveys, consumers will buy nearly 36 million real trees this year. That's 700,000 more than the year before, but it falls short of the record 37.2 million sold in 1995. And it's less than the estimated 45 million fake trees that fill U.S. houses each year.
In Georgia, nearly 500,000 people are expected to visit tree farms. But South Carolina hasn't made any predictions. Statisticians know that good sales depend on just the right weather and winter temperatures. But so far, some farmers who depend on triple-digit weekend sales aren't making them because they say it's been too rainy or too cold.
Still, South Carolina's 150 Christmas tree growers usually generate $1.6 million in annual sales.
George Jeffcoat and his fiancee, Stacey Elliott, are among the legions of people who have ditched their fake tree for one that's biodegradable - artificial trees made from petroleum and plastic can't be recycled. "Real ones smell good, too," Ms. Elliott said. "And they have a personality."
That's why the couple has driven 45 miles from Lexington, S.C., to Monetta for two straight years for a hand-planted Christmas tree from Andy Sanders' Christmas Tree Farm. The Sanders family is among South Carolina growers handing out materials to educate people about the benefits of real trees.
"If it's not short and fat, we don't want it. It has to fit in with the family," said Mr. Jeffcoat, poking fun at his own girth.
Chad Sanders, who owns and operates the farm with his mother and sister, has his own reasons for believing people come to his 40-acre farm each year to pick a tree. Among them are a good economy and families who want real trees to decorate the bigger, better, taller houses they are building But most of all, "people seem to be returning to traditions, and real Christmas trees are part of that," Mr. Sanders said.
Of the real Christmas trees harvested each year, 59 percent are recycled in community programs. Communities in the Aiken-Augusta area chip the trees for mulch, hiking trails, playgrounds and landscaping. Whole trees are used, too, for soil erosion barriers and feeding areas for fish.
The group also is trying to clear up misconceptions about real trees as fire hazards. Of the 446,000 residential blazes reported nationally each year between 1992 and 1996, only 530 involved Christmas trees - man-made and natural. Statistically, that's only one-tenth of a percent of all residential fires.
To make their point even more pronounced, the association says newspapers and magazines are 13 times more likely to catch fire, while the risk of boxes and bags catching fire is 10 times higher, and nine times higher for curtains and drapes.
Reach Chasiti Kirkland at (803) 279-6895.