Christmas tree harvest

Workers load Christmas trees onto a conveyor in preparation for shipping at Sunrise Tree Farm near Philomath, which is owned by Pat and Betty Malone. The Christmas tree industry has voted for the second time in favor of continuing a research and promotion program.

SALEM — Supporters of a national checkoff program aimed at promoting real Christmas trees have prevailed in another hard-fought referendum against opponents who believe it’s ineffectual.

About 55% of farmers and importers voted in favor of the checkoff, which generates about $1.8 million a year in mandatory fees of 15 cents per tree.

“I’m just delighted our industry will get the chance to help itself,” said Betty Malone, an Oregon Christmas tree farmer who spearheaded the checkoff idea.

The program survived by a narrower margin of 1% in a previous election administered last year by the USDA, which oversees research and promotion boards for 22 crops.

Proponents of the Christmas Tree Promotion Board argue that collectively investing in advertising and research helps the industry compete against artificial trees, but critics claim individual growers can spend their marketing dollars more effectively.

Farmers voted on the checkoff in 2018 after it had been operating for three full years. While the USDA didn’t explain why another referendum was held in 2019, supporters and detractors assumed it was because the first vote was so close.

Supporters tried to “flood the zone with information” to clinch another victory this year, sending regular emails to farmers and speaking to state Christmas tree organizations, said Blake Rafeld, an Ohio farmer who led the pro-checkoff campaign committee.

“You never know how a vote is going to come out, and we had an organized opposition,” Rafeld said. “My gut told me based on anecdotal information that we would be successful.”

Real Christmas trees have steadily lost market share to plastic imports from China, necessitating a concerted approach to winning over younger consumers, according to checkoff supporters.

The Christmas Tree Promotion Board has focused on creating online videos meant to be shared through social media, highlighting the family memories created by real trees as well as their economic and environmental benefits.

The board is also directing money toward agronomic research, such as battling insect pests and diseases.

“So many of the funding streams for research are drying up,” Malone said.

Farmers Against Christmas Tree Taxation, an organization that opposes the checkoff, alleges that consumer preferences are largely driven by demographic trends, with artificial trees favored by older people without young children at home.

Farmers are more likely to reap gains from targeted advertising in their local area than from a generic national campaign, which hasn’t proven effective with commodities such as milk, according to opponents.

Sales were strong in 2018 due to a healthy economy but the Christmas Tree Promotion Board likely got some of the credit, potentially helping checkoff supporters in the referendum, said Frans Kok, a Virginia farmer who organized the anti-checkoff campaign.

“I think it’s completely erroneous but the economy did what the economy did,” Kok said.

It’s possible for checkoff opponents to trigger another referendum if at least 10% of eligible farmers request it, but Kok said he’d like more information about the most recent vote before starting a petition.“I clearly expected to win this and I want to see what happened with the turnout and where did we fail,” he said.

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