For the second year in a row, there's a national shortage of Christmas trees across the country, resulting in higher prices in certain areas, according to the National Christmas Tree Association. Independent Christmas tree sellers in Oak Park, however, seem to be taking the shortage in stride.
"It takes over 10 years to grow a tree, so you can't just decide to increase supply in any given year because demand is high," said John Brussock, 31, who owns and operates Sandhill Christmas Trees, on the corner of Chicago and Maple avenues. Brussock said every year his tree sales increase. This year, he said, won't be different.
"Ten years ago, the recession hit and demand fell quite significantly," he said, explaining the national shortage. "Prices fell a bit, too, and a lot of farmers lightened up big time on how many trees they were planting. So we're seeing the effects of those lighter planting years 10 years later."
Brussock and the two other independent Christmas tree sellers in Oak Park who were interviewed for this story said if they've increased prices at all, the increase hasn't been by much. The national shortage hasn't affected their bottom-line as much as competition from larger retail stores, they said.
"The big chain stores are what hurts," said Joe Dombrowski, whose family has been selling Christmas trees in Oak Park for over 30 years, 10 of them at the corner of Oak Park Avenue and Madison Street. "They buy from bigger growers for cheap, by the tens of thousands, and sell them for cheap."
But even with the big-box competition, the independent sellers said, some things are mercifully oblivious to market forces. Places like Home Depot, Costco and Menards may have a forest of low-priced firs, but they're at a competitive disadvantage to the independent sellers when it comes to less remunerative qualities.
"The trees people get at the big box stores are, for the most part, cut very early in the fall," Brussock said. "If you go to Menards or Home Depot in mid-December and look at trees that are still there, you'll see that they're dry because they were cut too early. The best thing you can do is to go to a tree lot that can guarantee they have very recently harvested trees."
Brussock, who was born in Oak Park, said he plants, shears and harvests his trees at his family's tree farm in Marquette County, Wisconsin, where he grew up.
Dombrowski is a third-generation Christmas tree grower. Each year, he and a team hauls several hundred Frazier fir and Balsam fir trees to his lot from the family's farm in Michigan.
John Seymour, along with his wife, Cindy, and daughter, Samantha, have owned and operated Seymour Tree Farms at the corner of Roosevelt Road and Wisconsin Avenue for 10 seasons. Seymour has been selling Christmas trees for a total of 20 years, he said.
"I always sell out," Seymour said. "I run a good price, in a good neighborhood that always backs me up. This neighborhood has been so good to me that I come every year. This year, I can tell it's going to be a sellout. I won't have to advertise or anything."
That tradition, generational knowledge, and community relationship give the independent sellers another edge over the larger, big-box competition.
"It's really nice to have that actual connection with people who will enjoy our trees and use them as part of their family traditions," said Brussock, who is pursuing an MBA from the University of Michigan. Recently, he's relegated responsibility for the operation to Oak Park resident Tony Foley, Sandhill's retail manager.
The proximity to the actual growers is particularly beneficial for patrons who are relatively new to purchasing live Christmas trees.
Aleah Hersey, 20, had come to Sandhill from Chicago's Galewood neighborhood on Monday afternoon. She and her mom, she said, have been purchasing live trees for just two years after owning artificial trees for a long time.
Ronda Heitzman bought a Balsam fir from Dombrowski's lot on Monday evening. Heitzman said her family has been buying live trees since she and her husband got married in 1981. Over the last three decades, she has developed a ritual inspection when shopping for a Christmas tree.
"I'm looking for a really nice shape, a tree that doesn't have many holes," she said.
"I always walk all the way around and look at everything. I always smell it and stroke the branches and make sure it's not too dry because if the needles fall off, that means it's too dry. And, of course, it has to fit your space. So you want to judge the size and height to make sure you'll have room for it."
Heitzman was at Dombrowski's lot with one of their sons, who lives in Montana. He's leaving soon, Ronda said, which prompted the family to go tree shopping while he's still in town.
That continuity, Brussock said, is one of the perks of his vocation. It's an experience the big retailers can't easily replicate.
"I see people coming in to get their tree now who were small children when I first started working at this," said Brussock, who has spent his whole life at Sandhill. "Now, they're coming in with their children to get their trees. Seeing people in Oak Park carry on the traditions that their parents started is nice to see."
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