As temperatures fall, Christmas tree competition heats up

gmartin@islandpacket.comNovember 21, 2011 

The week before Thanksgiving means one thing to Larry LaLande: It's time to start selling Christmas trees.

"Been doing this over 10 years now," LaLande said as he surveyed his selection of about 150 trees in a parking lot near the intersection of Fording Island and Bluffton roads in greater Bluffton. "I get started before Thanksgiving every year."

In doing so, LaLande gets a jump on rival Christmas tree merchants in Beaufort County, most of whom start selling from their farms after Thanksgiving.

LaLande hasn't done much business since the bundled trees were unloaded from a flatbed truck Tuesday -- he's says he's sold only about 10 -- but he's got the market cornered for another week.

"It seems like people are selling trees earlier and earlier each year," said Wes Cooler, who waits until after Thanksgiving to sell trees at Okatie Farm. "But I think if you buy one now, even if you water it religiously, you'll be looking at nothing but a dried-up fire hazard by Christmas."

Cooler also said those buying trees from a roadside parking lot miss out on a unique opportunity to make their purchase in a more scenic environment.

"I've got a pretty stable base of customers," Cooley said, "and part of that is because of the experience of coming out to the farm."

Cooler also values tradition, saying that one of the most satisfying aspects of his job is farming the same land that his great-grandfather worked in the 19th century.

Milledge Morris, who has sold trees at the Family Tree Christmas Tree Farm on Lady's Island since 1981, said he's more concerned about the economy than anyone selling trees before Thanksgiving in Bluffton.

"I can't imagine that operation in Bluffton having any effect on me," Morris said. "I can't even get anyone within 3 miles to come to me."

Morris said he's seen about a 30 percent drop in sales since the recession began in 2007.

But he bristles at the suggestion that more people are buying artificial trees to save money.

"A lot of people think they're a good investment," he said of the plastic trees, "but I've seen studies saying they only have an average life of five years. And only a 3-year-old can't tell the difference between those and the real thing."

Morris also lamented increased competition from other local tree merchants.

"The pie's getting sliced thinner and thinner each year," he said, "and it's getting smaller at the same time."

Follow reporter Grant Martin at twitter.com/LowCoBiz.

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The family tree: Milledge Morris keeps Christmas traditions alive, November 29, 2010

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