Lawmakers Fight Over Perceived Christmas Tree Tax

fromMR

Christmas tree growers are frustrated that politics are delaying a marketing campaign to promote real trees over artificial. Following four years of work to get it passed, the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved the industry-sponsored real Christmas tree campaign in November. But conservatives quickly branded it as "President Obama's Christmas tree tax," and the program was delayed within days of its approval. There are 18 other commodities — like pork and eggs — with similar generic advertising programs. They show anywhere from a two-to-one to a 10-to-one return on investment.

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Over the past two decades, sales of Christmas trees have dropped more than 20 percent. This season, Christmas tree growers wanted to collectively start an advertising campaign to try to reverse that trend. But as Michigan Radio Lindsey Smith reports, of all things, politics got in the way.

LINDSEY SMITH, BYLINE: Real trees still outsell fake trees by about three to one. But artificial tree sales have been increasing for several years. Fake trees now have a slightly higher share of the Christmas tree market than real ones. Horrocks Nursery has sold Christmas trees since 1937. The choose-and-cut lot is off a state highway north of Ionia, Michigan. Parents and grandparents cluster around a wood fire. A horse-drawn carriage, complete with sleigh bells, takes families down muddy rows of farm-raised firs and pines.

Jack Hoedeman drove nearly an hour from Grand Rapids with his family. They picked out this 7-foot white pine, chopped it down together.

JACK HOEDEMAN: And it's kind of fun. You know, it's a little inconvenient, but it's really fun to bring the grandkids out here and have hot chocolate and roast marshmallows. It's really - it's a good Christmas tradition to cut your own.

SMITH: The whole family experience has become a key selling point for the Horrocks Christmas tree business. Marsha Gray is the executive director of the Michigan Christmas Tree Association. She says most Christmas tree operations are small farmers.

MARSHA GRAY: When we have so many different, individual farmers, it's difficult for them to, on their own, execute an effective ad campaign.

SMITH: Gray and others turned to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for help a few years ago. She wanted to see if a majority of growers would chip in for a national advertising campaign. There's already about 20 other commodities with USDA marketing programs. There's the celebrities with Got Milk? mustaches. There's Beef - It's What's For Dinner.

The first national campaign started in 1966, for cotton. Farmers pay $1 a bail towards the Fabric of Our Lives cotton ads. These fees add up to more than $70 million a year - and cotton growers get bang for their buck: $8 in return for every dollar they invest.

About 70 percent of Christmas tree growers voted for the fees so on November 8th, the USDA made the program official. Growers who sold more than 500 trees would pay 15 cents per tree to fund the campaign.

Michigan grower Matt Horrocks calculates how much it would have cost him.

MATT HORROCKS: When you're doing a thousand trees for $150, it's a job in the barrel; it's not that big a deal.

SMITH: But politics quickly turned it into a big deal. Within hours of the program's approval, the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation branded it Obama's new Christmas tree tax. Over the next few days, some mainstream news outlets repeated that slogan.

Here's a clip from an ABC news affiliate in Tampa, Florida.

(SOUNDBITE OF ABC NEWS)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: But he never thought he'd see a federal tax on Christmas trees.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I can't believe why in world the government would get involved in the Christmas tree industry.

SMITH: Marsha Gray got frustrated when she saw these reports because they're wrong.

GRAY: The government is not requiring us to do this. The industry is asking for it.

SMITH: No taxpayer dollars are used to support commodity marketing programs. The USDA just oversees them, and they get fees from the growers for doing that. Still, within days, the USDA put the Christmas Tree Program on hold to give everyone more time to understand it.

Marsha Gray says the USDA should have approved the program months ago.

GRAY: I'm not trying to put blame at their feet but to bring this out in November - how did they not think that, gee, maybe somebody might try to spin this as something bad going into the holidays?

SMITH: A USDA spokesman agrees that timing was everything, but he says there never was a problem with beef or cotton, or any of the other 20 programs.

For NPR News, I'm Lindsey Smith.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "O, CHRISTMAS TREE")

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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