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Why Christmas Trees Are So Expensive?

ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: Nick and I are standing on a Brooklyn street corner participating in that great American tradition - trying to make a buck off a religious holiday.

RYAN BLACKWELL: How much does a 6 to 7-foot Christmas tree go for this year?

NICK FOUNTAIN, BYLINE: We're asking for $150.

BLACKWELL: And people are actually paying $150?

FOUNTAIN: No. No, they are not.

SMITH: Not a single person.

FOUNTAIN: That's why we still have a truck full of trees.

BLACKWELL: So you're trying to dupe people into buying too-expensive Christmas trees. Is that what's going on?

SMITH: I don't think it's duping. It's seeing what the market will bear.

BLACKWELL: OK. And the market so far has borne nothing.

SMITH: Nothing.

FOUNTAIN: Until a family walks up.

SMITH: I think we got a customer.

AMANDA SIDRAN: (Laughter) We're curious if this is a tree sale or if it's a news program.

SMITH: It is both.

A SIDRAN: Whoa.

SMITH: I know.

FOUNTAIN: Amanda and Leo Sidran and some extended family were headed to the park when they saw our sign.

SMITH: Are you interested in a tree?

LEO SIDRAN: Yes.

A SIDRAN: Yes.

L SIDRAN: We are interested in a tree.

SMITH: Before we put a price on this tree, would you like to hear the story of the tree?

L SIDRAN: Of course.

SMITH: Excellent.

L SIDRAN: (Laughter).

SMITH: Picture, if you will, a farm in the middle of Pennsylvania. And you're thinking, oh, is this where they grow the Christmas trees? But no, this is where they auction the Christmas trees.

FOUNTAIN: All right, ready? Three, two (vocalizing).

SMITH: (Vocalizing).

One week ago.

NEIL COURTNEY: A 12-foot concolor - what are you going to give? What are you going to give? Two hundred to go. (Vocalizing).

SMITH: We are at the Buffalo Valley Christmas tree auction.

FOUNTAIN: Forty-five-thousand conifers are up for sale today, grown as far away as Canada and North Carolina. And our goal is to bring some home. We have a thousand dollars cash, and we're looking for a deal.

SMITH: The trees are stacked like firewood. They fill a huge field. And the auctioneer, Neil Courtney, sits in the back of a pickup truck moving from pile to pile.

COURTNEY: Number.

HARVEY: Four-fifty-two.

COURTNEY: Four-fifty-two, talk to me.

HARVEY: Five and five 10-foot concolors.

COURTNEY: Hundred dollars (vocalizing).

FOUNTAIN: Hundreds of buyers crowd around Neil's truck. These are people who want to sell the trees on street corners or at garden centers.

CARY NALLS: This is going to be a day like nobody's ever seen.

SMITH: Cary Nalls sells trees in Virginia. And he broke the news to us. There are no deals this year.

NALLS: It'd be a good year to be a tree farmer and have trees here to sell. They're bringing big money for them.

SMITH: So that means a bad year to be in the retail business?

NALLS: Well, you just got to adjust your figures a little bit.

SMITH: One theory about the high prices is that people are stuck at home. They're willing to pay more for something cheerful in the living room. Plus, families are staying apart, and that means more trees are needed.

FOUNTAIN: But that's only half the equation. There's also a supply problem.

SMITH: We scanned the crowd for the tree farmers. They're the ones smiling.

BYRON MITCHELL: These prices are amazing.

SMITH: Byron Mitchell grows 250 acres of Christmas trees in central Pennsylvania, which sounds like a lot, but it's fewer trees than he used to have. Byron says everywhere you look, there's a nationwide shortage of Christmas trees.

FOUNTAIN: And that's because a good-sized tree takes about 10 years to grow. And 10 years ago was - wait for it - the Great Recession.

SMITH: I'd never realized this before, but the tree business was hit hard by the Recession. A big part of a tree farmer's profit comes from selling live trees for landscaping. After the Great Recession, with all those foreclosed and empty houses, nobody needed landscaping.

FOUNTAIN: Tree prices plunged for both live trees and Christmas trees. Farmers just couldn't sell them.

MITCHELL: We probably lost somewhere in the realm of 75,000 to 100,000 trees that we just let grow because we couldn't afford to maintain them any longer.

FOUNTAIN: Byron estimates half of his fellow tree farmers gave up.

SMITH: And that's why 10 years later, there are so few trees up for auction, why the prices are so high today. These trees are the miraculous survivors of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

FOUNTAIN: And we want them.

SMITH: We sign up for an auction number, and we hunt for a pile of trees we can afford. And we find some labeled No. 2 grade, which means they're misfits - you know, Charlie Brown trees - a little misshapen with a little bald spot.

FOUNTAIN: Let's bid.

COURTNEY: Which ones? Right there.

FOUNTAIN: I make eye contact with Neil...

COURTNEY: I see Lower Manhattan. Fifty dollars - (unintelligible).

SMITH: OK, we're $50. Are you in? Are you in, Nick?

FOUNTAIN: Fifty-two and a half. OK, he's doing 52.

SMITH: Nick bids $55 a tree. And then, I cannot believe I'm seeing this.

FOUNTAIN: Fifty-seven and a half.

SMITH: He bids against himself.

FOUNTAIN: (Laughter).

COURTNEY: And you only get one free pass a day, 55. Fifty-seven and a half? You just went past go. You bought them.

FOUNTAIN: Hell yeah.

SMITH: Yeah. We got them. We got trees.

COURTNEY: NPR strikes - largest news media group in the country.

FOUNTAIN: We got 19 trees for $55 a tree.

SMITH: Last year, it would have been 40 bucks. But that's OK. All we have to do is bring them to a place where people are used to overpaying for everything.

FOUNTAIN: (Vocalizing).

SMITH: (Vocalizing).

FOUNTAIN: Brooklyn.

SMITH: Well, now that you've heard the story...

A SIDRAN: (Laughter).

FOUNTAIN: The Sidran family is listening to every word, captivated by the story of why the Great Recession means they should pay $150 for a tree that we bought for 55.

L SIDRAN: We don't need to hear the show to know that these are second-rate trees, but...

FOUNTAIN: What?

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE #1: Oh.

(LAUGHTER)

A SIDRAN: Ouch.

L SIDRAN: But frankly, there's no other trees out right now.

A SIDRAN: Yeah.

FOUNTAIN: There's a lot of demand in Brooklyn for trees this year.

L SIDRAN: What did they say they paid? They told us. They told us. If we roll back the tape, they're going to tell us what they paid.

FOUNTAIN: No, no, no. No tape-backsies.

L SIDRAN: I'm going to say 70 bucks for this tree.

SMITH: Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.

L SIDRAN: Well, what do you think?

A SIDRAN: I would say $100.

FOUNTAIN: I will take $100 for this tree.

SMITH: Sold.

(LAUGHTER)

SMITH: Our first sale and our only sale for much of the afternoon.

FOUNTAIN: As it started to get dark and cold, we just kept lowering the prices. By nightfall, we were selling them for cost. It was depressing.

SMITH: But later that night, one of our customers sent us a photo. It was our tree set up in their living room with sparkling lights and a little Santa on top. And it didn't look like a misfit. It didn't look like a No. 2 tree. It looked like the Christmas tree of my childhood memories.

FOUNTAIN: Oh, and also, that family who paid $100 for their tree - Leo, Amanda, Sol, Zelta - they went home and - believe it or not - recorded this song about the experience. Leo Sidran, the dad, is a composer.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE STORY OF THE TREE")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Singing) Strolling through the neighborhood, wondering if maybe we'd find a tree for the family.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE #2: (Singing) And we tried and tried and tried and tried, tried to negotiate. Then we paid a hundred dollars for a tree that's second-rate.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Singing) But it's funny...

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE #3: (Singing) Funny, funny.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Singing) ...Because we bought it from the boys at Planet Money.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE #3: (Singing) La, la, la...

FOUNTAIN: That's us - Nick Fountain.

SMITH: And Robert Smith, NPR News.

FOUNTAIN: Brooklyn. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.