Few cut corners on the tree

Brothers Rici and Edward Pruett helped their parents haul out the Christmas tree they had just cut, their contribution to the local economy.

The Pruetts, who live in Empire, were among the patrons at the nearby Come & Cut tree farm on Milnes Road on Friday afternoon.

"In the past, we have gone to Wal-Mart because of the prices," said Nichole Pruett, mother of the 6- and 2-year-olds, "but with the economy the way it is, we like to keep our money local."

Owners of tree farms and lots around the state report that business has been steady despite the continued weak economy.

"They might skimp in other areas, but at Christmas they say, 'Let's go get what we want,' " said Hal Denton, manager of Sierra Glen Ranch near Twain Harte.

Sam Minturn, who grows trees near Hilmar and Manteca and is president of the California Christmas Tree Association, said buyers also could be dealing better with the economy.

"A year ago, people were kind of in shock, and this year seems to be better," he said.

Minturn said a bumper crop of trees from the Pacific Northwest could be keeping prices in check. He said he has not heard of any California producers raising their rates.

Come & Cut has held its price at $35 for a tree of any height or species. Sierra Glen has stayed at $49 for redwood, $59 for Douglas fir and $69 for white fir.

This lack of inflation also mirrors the larger economy, as businesses try to lure customers amid the economic trouble.

"We know people are hurting," said Rick Ulvevadet, owner of the Bramble Hill Christmas Tree Farm near Columbia. But buyers are still coming this year, he said.

"It always seems that they may cut back in other areas, but the foundation of the holiday is the tree," he said.

Ulvevadet has kept his price at $40 for most trees. He offers 25 percent off for flawed trees but has found few takers.

Come & Cut owner Lorraine Nicholson said she has seen an increase in valley residents shopping close to home rather than heading into the mountains.

People who are really pressed for money, or who prefer the convenience, can find plenty of already-cut trees at independent lots and chain stores. As with the cut-your-own places, they might offer hot chocolate or other attractions to fill out the experience.

Households can save in the long run with an arti- ficial tree, but the upfront cost is high. Last year, the average cost of a farm-grown tree was $36.50 while consumers spent an average $60.63 for an artificial tree, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.

Last year, national sales of real trees were down 10 percent compared with the previous year.

Rick Dungey, spokesman for the national group, said the economy is only part of what influences the sale of trees. Other factors can include the weather, quality of trees and whether people will be traveling over the holiday.

"There is a lot of cautious optimism out there," Dungey said.

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at or 578-2385.