TWIN FALLS • The 2011 Christmas season came with a short-lived political controversy this year.
The flap occurred before local Christmas tree sellers set up their makeshift forests in parking lots. In fact, the surprise scuttlebutt that caused it ended before Thanksgiving turkeys went on sale.
Its roots go back three years. Starting in 2008, Christmas tree growers planned a push for a 15-cent surcharge for every tree sold. Faced with an increase of people who buy synthetic Christmas trees, growers hoped the move would fund a promotion and research program backed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Similar programs are used by other agricultural industries. Legally, such a surcharge can only be approved when a majority of the industry seeks the so-called checkoff.
The effort started to unravel in early November, after the proposal was published in the Federal Register. From there, a blog called it a “tax on Christmas trees.”
The catchy, Grinch-like phrase stuck as the story spread. By mid-November, the USDA indefinitely delayed the proposal, saying more time is needed for everyone to study it.
Tree growers who backed the surcharge were less than merry about that move.
The National Christmas Tree Association, which represents growers, issued a defensive press release headlined: “Christmas tree farmers set the record straight.”
“The program is not a tax — it is an industry-requested self-assessment to fund promotion and information programs to encourage American consumers to buy farm-raised Christmas trees,” Oregon tree farmer Betty Malone said in a written statement. She led the task force that requested the program.
In Twin Falls, the Christmas tree business is about selling trees — not lobbying for a new program. Lloyd Family Christmas Trees has operated in the Magic Valley since 1951.
The third-generation family business buys trees from growers and cuts wild trees in Montana. John Lloyd wasn’t a fan of the proposal.
“It would just be more of a pain,” he said. “We’re trying to keep our prices down.”
He estimates he’ll sell about 4,000 to 5,000 trees this year in the Magic Valley. A 15-cent additional cost on each tree would have meant about $600 to $750 would go from buyers’ wallets to the proposed program.
Jay Proost, owner of Proost Family Farms in Twin Falls, will sell about 500 to 600 trees this year.
It’s only his second year selling the trees in addition to the fruits and vegetables he sells in warmer weather. Adding Christmas trees to his sales list keeps a couple of his workers employed for two more months of the year, he said.
He’s not sure of all the proposal’s details, but said a 15-cent charge per tree probably wouldn’t scare buyers away. But that’s not a glowing endorsement, either.
“It would depend on where they would collect it at,” Proost said. “… It can’t be something that the government’s going to mandate.”
Christmas tree politics aside, those natural trees still have plenty of allure.
Lloyd lights up with a smile when talking about his trees. The piney scent remains, regardless of the dealings in Washington, D.C.
“Smell — that’s the major one,” he said. “People come in and it’s like: ‘What tree smells the best?’” he said.
Ben Botkin may be reached at 735-3235.