West Point residents Jennifer and Norman Hall went to Cal Sierra Tree Farm up on a rise above the South Fork Mokelumne River on Thursday to buy their Christmas tree, a white fir.

“It’s our first time buying over here,” Norman Hall said. “It’s the smell of a real tree, we always have a real tree. Fake trees are icky.”

“This place is beautiful,” Jennifer Hall said, standing by Yolanda Buller, 67, the tree farm owner. “She helped us out so much.”

Buller, like other Christmas tree farmers in the Mother Lode and around the nation, has taken part in a national ad and social media campaign called “It's Christmas. Keep It Real.”

The campaigns were launched in 2016 by growers who fund the national Christmas Tree Promotion Board, and their intent is to remind people that real trees are environmentally friendly, and preferable to plastic Christmas trees.

“My father started this in 1959,” Buller said. “He passed away five years ago but we’re still here. We probably have sold 600 to 650 trees so far since Thanksgiving. We’re still open.”

Wintry weather over the four-day Thanksgiving holiday weekend dampened Christmas tree sales at Buller’s place, she said. Typically she gets 50 percent of her annual business over the first weekend after Thanksgiving.

“The weather was nasty,” Buller said. “Rain and cold. It really hindered us. The workers were wet and miserable.”

Buller estimated her father planted 150,000 trees between 1959 and 2013 on 40 acres. The most popular Christmas trees she sells are silver tip and white fir. She took time to stand by a live, uncut 15-foot sugar pine and she emphasized the tree is native to the area and it’s also for sale.

Buller said she did some social media advertising on Facebook, and she paid for print ads in a Jackson newspaper that include the “Keep it Real” campaign logo. People like coming to her place because they can cut their own trees. She shows people where to cut the tree to preserve the stump’s life so another tree can regenerate from the stump.

“We have fourth-generation customers coming out here now,” Buller said. “For them it’s all about the live tree and the smell. Because we show customers where to cut the trees, we’ll never run out of trees in our lifetime.”

Fake trees booming

According to the American Christmas Tree Association, based in West Hollywood, 75 to 80 percent of U.S. residents who have Christmas trees now have an artificial one, the market for fake trees has grown to $1billion annually, and it’s growing at around 4 percent each year.

“We represent retailers of artificial trees, manufacturers of artificial trees, and we do not feel there’s a right or wrong choice when it comes to choosing a Christmas tree,” Jami Warner, a spokesperson for the American Christmas Tree Association, said Thursday in a phone interview. “Choose the tree that best fits your lifestyle, whether that’s real or artificial, and even better, choose more than one tree.”

Charlie Anderson, 63, runs Anderson Christmas Tree Farm up on a hill above Pennsylvania Gulch outside Murphys. He planted about eight acres 30 years and he’s been selling trees the past 20 years. He said Thursday he’s closed for the season now because he’s already sold 200 trees off his plantation and about 270 fresh-cut trees from Oregon.

“I started buying fresh-cuts from Oregon like five years ago during the drought because my trees were not doing well,” Anderson said. “Back then I’d sell 2-to-1 fresh cut for every one off the hill. Now it’s about half and half.”

The “Keep it Real” campaign is 100 percent dead-on accurate, Anderson said. A lot of people are now going out to buy artificial trees. He says he’s used Twitter and Facebook and “all that social media” for several years, and he said it’s helped triple his sales each year.

“I used to just put out signs on the road, and I’d get local business, but now I get people coming from Modesto and Stockton,” Anderson said. “People are thinking more about real Christmas trees. For the environment it’s way better. We don’t kill the trees. Each time they cut, we ask people to leave three branches on the stump. A new tree will grow from that stump. We don’t kill them, we regrow them.”

Campaign ‘makes a difference’

Anderson said he was a forestry tech major years ago at Columbia College. He said it takes 12 years to grow a Christmas tree. Sometimes people get mad when he runs out of trees but he can only grow so many trees on his land. He can’t sell all his mediocre trees when the excellent ones are gone, because this year’s mediocre tree will be one of next year’s excellent trees.

He said his trees are much better this year compared to two years ago, because the winters have been wetter. Two years ago his trees cooked in the blazing sunshine and all the needles fell off and he thought the trees had died. They recovered.

“The Keep it Real campaign has made a big difference in sales,” Anderson said. “Last year and this year it made a difference. There’s a lot of misinformation put out by the artificial tree companies, like they’re better for the environment, and that’s just not true.”

Closer to Sonora, the Bramble Hill Christmas Tree Farm off Cattle Drive Trail outside Columbia is sold out and closed for the season. So is Twain Harte Tree Farm, and owners Peggy and Don Moore have a “Sold Out!” sign on their website. Chris Hammond, owner of Tabletop Christmas Tree Farms off Harper Road in Groveland said he did not open this year but he hopes to open next year.

‘Real tree experience’

Marsha Gray, a Michigan-based spokesperson for the Christmas Tree Promotion Board, said Thursday it’s difficult quantifying how many real Christmas trees are sold each year.

“The challenge is there are really no firm statistics on how many Christmas trees are harvested and sold in the U.S. each year, so we can’t compare year to year because the number is never really known,” Gray said in a phone interview. “We’re just using anecdotal information and we’re getting positive feedback from our growers and retailers.”

What Gray and others with the Christmas Tree Promotion Board hope to emphasize is the real tree experience, the fragrance of a real tree, the tree itself, but more than that, it’s the experience of going to select a real tree with your family.

“These are trees that are grown on farms and when we harvest we replant, and they provide oxygen and wildlife habitat, and when you dispose of them they are 100 percent recyclable and 100 percent biodegradable, unlike artificial trees,” Gray said.

According to the American Christmas Tree Association, more than 95 million U.S. households will celebrate the 2018 holiday season by displaying Christmas trees, and 82 percent of those on display will be artificial.. Warner shared the information via a press release that was dated Thursday, Dec. 13.

Earlier this week, the Associated Press moved a story stating the National Christmas Tree Association estimates about 25 million evergreens are harvested each year, and presumably, most of those are sold.

Americans buy about 10 million artificial trees each year, according to Thomas "Mac" Harman of Balsam Hill, the leading retailer of artificial Christmas trees, the AP reported. Harman is also president of the American Christmas Tree Association. The ACTA does not disclose its membership, but the group raised $70,000 in donations in 2016 for its work, which includes touting artificial trees.

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.