June 22, 2018
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Is conservative media the Grinch that stole Maine tree growers’ Christmas?

By Abigail Curtis, BDN Staff

BELFAST, Maine — In a world crowded with advertisements and promotion boards for agricultural commodities such as beef, potatoes, pork and even watermelon, the Christmas tree stands alone.

And a recent attempt by Christmas tree farmers to create their own industry marketing and research program was derailed earlier this month by conservative critics, according to one tree grower in Maine, who decried the situation as “discrimination.”

“The other commodities have their programs. Ours has been taken away,” said Jim Corliss of Piper Mountain Christmas Trees in Newburgh. “After all our hard work, it felt like a body blow.”

On Friday, his snowy, 30-acre tree farm was alive with activity as families picked their Christmas trees, nibbled fresh doughnuts and enjoyed rides in a horse-drawn wagon.

But all the smiles and Christmas cheer belie the harsh reality that fewer and fewer people are choosing live trees each year, he said. And that is bad news for Christmas tree farmers, most of whom run small, family businesses. Corliss also serves as president of the Maine Christmas Tree Association, a nonprofit organization with 130 members.

“The general outlook for Maine Christmas trees is the same as it is for national. That is, for the last 40 years, we’ve been on a downward spiral,” he said. “We’ve failed to compete with the artificial tree industry. They spare no money for advertising. You’ll see the ads for fake trees, but you won’t see any by us.”

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, fresh-tree sales declined from 37 million in 1991 to 31 million in 2007. Artificial tree sales, however, nearly doubled from 2003 to 2007 to 17.4 million.

The white-bearded 75-year-old Corliss, who got into growing trees as his retirement career, also has served as president of the National Christmas Tree Association. He said that after watching the market share for real trees dwindle over the years, he began advocating for Christmas tree growers to have their own marketing program.

Corliss said that marketing is needed to combat negative ideas about Christmas trees, such as the idea they’re a fire hazard and purchasing a real tree hurts the environment. But such marketing efforts are hard to sustain on a voluntary basis.

Enter the industry “checkoff” program. As proposed, Christmas tree farmers who sell more than 500 trees would pay a mandatory assessment of 15 cents a tree towards a new marketing and promotion program. This would be overseen by USDA, but by design would not involve taxpayer or government funds.

This year, the USDA held a long open comment period for the proposed checkoff program, which growers supported 3-to-1, according to Corliss.

On Nov. 8, the final ruling to establish a Christmas tree checkoff program was published in the Federal Register, just in time for the farmers’ selling season.

“Everybody was ecstatic,” Corliss said.

But they had reckoned without David Addington, who writes for The Foundry, a policy news blog for The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

In a Nov. 8 post titled “ Obama Couldn’t Wait: His New Christmas Tree Tax,” Addington wrote that the president would impose a 15 cent tax on all fresh Christmas trees to support a new federal image and marketing program.

“The economy is barely growing and nine percent of the American people have no jobs. Is a new tax on Christmas trees the best President Obama can do?” Addington wrote. “And, by the way, the American Christmas tree has a great image that doesn’t need any help from the government.”

His post, and the idea of an “Obama Christmas Tree Tax,” burned across the blogosphere like a forest fire. Almost 3,000 people commented on Addington’s blog. More than 180,000 people “liked” it on Facebook.

“Without checking with anybody in our industry, Fox News and Rush Limbaugh picked it up, started blasting it across the country,” Corliss said.

On Nov. 10, the Obama administration announced that it would delay and re-evaluate the assessment.

“I can tell you unequivocally that the Obama administration is not taxing Christmas trees,” said White House spokesman Matt Lehrich. “What’s being talked about here is an industry group deciding to impose fees on itself to fund a promotional campaign, similar to how the dairy producers have created the ‘Got Milk?’ campaign.”

Betty Malone is a tree farmer from Oregon who chaired the checkoff task force. She decried the outcome of the farmers’ efforts to better market their trees in a press release issued last week from the National Christmas Tree Association.

“It’s just so disappointing to have something like this happen because of an Internet rumor,” said Malone. “Farmers know dirt. We know how to grow things. But in this changing world, it is not enough to grow a great product … Here we were, a group of farmers trying to pool our own money together to sell more of our crop, and now we’re not allowed to because someone decided to call it a tax, when it’s not.”

Lance Dutson of the Maine Heritage Policy Foundation said Friday that although his own conservative think tank hadn’t gotten involved in the Christmas tree dispute, in general he supports keeping government out of the open market.

“Whenever the government gets involved in the market, the price goes up for consumers. In the end, that’s what causes the industry to collapse,” he said. “Let industry succeed or fail by their own merits, based on what consumers choose.”

However, he said that if a group of tree farmers wanted to work together to promote their product, that sounded like free enterprise to him.

“Obviously, they should be allowed to do that,” he said.

For Corliss, the debate is upsetting.

“The Heritage Foundation advertises itself as being for small business, for the entrepreneur, for small enterprise. This time, they got it wrong,” he said.

Customer Arnie Whittaker of Newburgh said that his family has bought their tree from Piper Mountain for the last 17 years. They enjoy picking their own tree, they love the beauty of the hills and they think the Corlisses are nice people, he said.

When he was asked about the industry’s proposed tree assessment, he said that it sounded just fine.

“As long as they’re not trying to suck it out of the man and put it in the state coffers or the federal government, it’s okay with me,” Whittaker said.

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