Christmas tree checkoff faces referendum again

The fate of a checkoff program that raises money to promote and research Christmas trees will again be put to a vote among farmers starting this month.

People who harvest or import more than 500 Christmas trees per year will cast their ballots on whether to continue funding the Christmas Tree Promotion Board from April 22 until May 17.

In a referendum held last year, farmers approved the checkoff by a margin of just 16 votes out of 800 cast, but the USDA — which oversees the program — decided to hold another vote in 2019.

About 1,200 farmers and importers currently pay 15 cents per tree to fund the checkoff, which raises about $1.8 million a year for promotions aimed at competing against fake trees, as well as research to solve production problems.

Controversy has dogged the checkoff before it began operating in 2015, with the program’s implementation stalled for several years due to allegations it amounted to a “Christmas tree tax.”

Supporters of the checkoff say that promotional spending is a worthwhile investment to prevent real trees from losing market share, while critics argue the money has not meaningfully increased sales for individual farmers.

“The real benefit comes from year after year of that message getting out,” said Betty Malone, an Oregon farmer who spearheaded the effort to begin the checkoff.

The initial referendum was held after the program had concluded three seasons of marketing campaigns, which largely focused on targeting consumers through social media.

The campaigns touted the value of real trees in forming lasting family memories, as well as their environmental benefits and importance to domestic farmers.

Money collected from farmers is also paying for research into reducing such pests as slugs and elongated hemlock scale, a destructive insect, among other problems facing the industry, Malone said.

“No one has got the money to sponsor the research that’s needed,” she said. “It’s these kinds of things that benefit the entire industry that the Christmas Tree Promotion Board should be doing.”

Malone said there’s a lack of clarity as to why USDA decided to hold another referendum so soon after the first, effectively punishing the program for a close victory.

“In a democracy, it shouldn’t matter if it was one vote or 100 votes,” she said.

Farmers Against Christmas Tree Taxation, a group that’s campaigning against the checkoff, is optimistic that a majority of farmers will vote against the program in 2019, said Frans Kok, a Virginia grower who organized the group.

Last year, several dozen ballots weren’t counted because the USDA received them too late and FACTT expects those votes swayed heavily against the checkoff, he said.

Growers who have avoided paying the annual assessment can nonetheless vote in the referendum, though they must show they’re eligible to cast ballots, Kok said. This verification process takes time, which is likely why their ballots arrived late.

“This year, we have focused very heavily on those people,” he said. “A lot of it will depend on the brave farmers who step forward.”

The results of the referendum are kept confidential by USDA and cannot be used to fine farmers who have avoided paying their annual checkoff assessments, Kok said.

Christmas tree research is more effective when its locally focused and overseen by academics, while the promotions haven’t been effective — particularly compared to direct marketing by individual farmers, he said.

Consumers who prefer real trees are generally families with young children who have a Christian heritage, Kok said.

The industry’s penetration of that market has basically stayed the same, while artificial trees are favored by the elderly and young adults without families, he said. “Our market segment hasn’t changed over decades.”