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Once a little-known tree, the Fraser fir is becoming America’s favorite Christmas tree. Each year, North Carolina Christmas tree growers harvest $85 million worth of Christmas trees, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and 90 percent of them are Fraser firs. They are shipped to all 50 states, Canada, Japan, Mexico and other points all over the world. North Carolina now ranks second in the nation in Christmas tree production.

Jennifer-GreeneJennifer Greene is the executive director of the North Carolina Christmas Tree Association.Jennifer Greene, executive director of the North Carolina Christmas Tree Association in Boone, NC, said in a July 11 interview that the Christmas tree crop there will be bountiful this year. “We had an excellent growing season, with good rainfall and cooler temperatures in the mountains,” she said. The Fraser fir is native to the Western North Carolina Mountains and grows at high elevations, between 4,000 to almost 7,000 feet.

“The Fraser fir is the perfect Christmas tree,” Ms. Greene asserted. “It’s been chosen as the White House Christmas tree more than any other variety and become more popular over the past 40 years. It has a pleasant fragrance, an attractive pyramid shape, strong limbs and branches that hold ornaments well, and it can retain its blue-green needles for a long time. Because its needles are soft, they don’t prick you when you are hanging ornaments on the tree,” she added.

The 300 members of her association sell to many supermarkets, she said, and she offered three tips for supermarkets: Display the trees in stands that hold at least a gallon of water (some stores use buckets and boxes lined with trash bags), be sure the trees have water at all times (dryness causes the trunk to seal and impairs water intake), and store and display trees in a shaded, cool area.

Challenges faced by North Carolina growers include the influx of artificial trees, most imported from China; pests moving to higher altitudes due to climate change; and workforce needs of a labor-intensive, seasonal crop. The labor issue looms large, she noted. “North Carolina is the biggest H2A user in the nation,” she stated, referring to a federal program that provides legal immigrant labor when the local labor supply cannot meet needs.

Another challenge has been the recession. “We didn’t get hammered by the recession like the nursery industry did,” Ms. Greene observed. “People bought smaller trees to save money — but they still bought trees, because it’s a Christmas tradition. And growers sold more trees to charity groups that were fundraising for community projects.”

The outlook is brighter for Christmas 2012, Ms. Greene said. “We’re expecting customers to move out of the recession mindset this year, and back closer to normal.” The association has prepared a care and handling page for consumers to help them get maximum pleasure from their Fraser fir.

The Fraser fir was discovered in 1787 in the mountains of North Carolina by Scottish botanist John Fraser. It grows in parts of North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.

Like the Fraser fir, Ms Greene is a native of North Carolina. She had a marketing background in the hospitality industry before joining the North Carolina Christmas Tree Association two years ago.