Johnny and Kathy Schultz perused the artificial tree displays at Lowe’s, eyeing the preadorned lights and glossy price tags with careful consideration.
Choosing a manufactured tree in the air conditioning of a big-box store was new for the couple. Since they were married 26 years ago, they’ve been Real Tree people, enamored with the smell.
But this year, they arrived at their usual lot to find a price increase from the previous year that made Johnny Schultz turn around and walk out. The couple had heard about a Christmas tree shortage on the news.
"Maybe it’s time to convert," he thought to himself.
The nationwide shortage, which the National Christmas Tree Association says is a delayed result of the Great Recession a decade ago, is driving up prices and cutting supplies, including for some Tampa Bay area vendors.
"Christmas tree sales were off 10 years ago," said Doug Hundley, spokesman for the association, which represents growers around the country. "We didn’t harvest as many trees, so they didn’t have the space to plant back young ones."
It takes a tree about seven to 10 years to grow, Hundley said, so "there’s no way to deal with that except patience." The problem is worsened by this year’s healthy economy, which is increasing demand.
Hundley said those who want a tree should be able to find them, but it will take more preparation than in the past. He recommended calling your usual vendor to check on the supply and buying a tree in the first or second week of December. Fraser firs, grown in North Carolina and typically what is sold in Florida, he said, can last for a month or more with the proper indoor care.
"We’re all for keeping people in real trees," he said, "and we honestly have all the confidence in the world that everybody that wants a real tree will be able to find one."
Around Tampa Bay, parking lots, church lawns and vacant fields have filled up with tree sellers since Thanksgiving or before. One was Gallagher’s Pumpkins & Christmas Trees in St. Petersburg, which has been in business off Fourth Street N for about 30 years.
Owner David Gallagher, while unloading some Fraser firs, said he’s paid about 15 percent more for trees this year, which he’s heard has run some smaller vendors out of business. He’s raising prices for consumers only 5 percent because he feels they shouldn’t have to pay for an error by the growers.
Like Hundley, he feels confident his customers will be able to find what they need as long as they buy early. He’s already seen more people come through the lot since he started selling trees Nov. 19.
"Because it’s all over the news that there’s a shortage," he said.
In Clearwater, Rich Salzman, the owner of Northstar Wisconsin Christmas Trees, led a couple around a maze of sweet-smelling trees Tuesday afternoon under a white tent off Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard.
He had two suppliers he had been working with for 20 years tell him they wouldn’t be able to provide him with his normal order. On top of the recession, a drought in recent years has stunted tree growth at farms in Western states, he said.
Northstar’s long history in the industry got the business to its target amount, but even then, the cost was up 10 to 15 percent. Like Gallagher, he’s passing only some of that on.
"We’re going to take a little bit of a cut, but we want to keep our customers," he said.
The couple he led around, Susan and Joe Siewruk of Palm Harbor, were new to his lot. The spot they frequented didn’t have the bountiful, round body they were looking for in a tree. They didn’t know about the shortage until Salzman mentioned it, but they could believe it.
"This is the first year" it’s been difficult, Susan Siewruk, 66, said.
The struggle even hit Boy Scouts and schools. Troop 262, which sells trees at Hope Lutheran Church in St. Petersburg, was shorted 30 trees from its order of 350, said committee chairman Bernard Gumz.
Lance McCullers, a Tampa resident whose family has run the Plant High School tree lot since 1966, said his grower has limited the amount of inventory he can get. He said he has about 300 to 400 fewer trees this year than last and has had to raise prices.
But it hasn’t trickled down everywhere.
Barbara Holfeltz, who works at Winterland Christmas Trees in Tampa, said prices went up a little this year, but there are still more than 800 trees for sale at her lot on Dale Mabry Highway at Columbus Drive.
"I don’t know why people are saying there’s a shortage," she said.
Tom Daly of Fancy Fir Christmas Trees in Tampa said that he’s heard some farmers have fewer trees and that demand has driven up prices, but his suppliers were not affected.
Whether more people will jump into the artificial tree market like the Schultzes remains to be seen. A good gauge may be Robert’s Christmas Wonderland in Clearwater, which has an entire room devoted to its artificial tree stock. But manager Josh Frank said business, while bustling on Tuesday, has been normal so far.
It was a disappointing transition for Kathy Schultz, who said she would miss the smell filling up her home.
"You just can’t replace a real tree," Schultz, 53, said.
But at least this year, an air freshener would have to do.
Contact Kathryn Varn at [email protected] or (727) 893-8913. Follow @kathrynvarn.