The Sad Tale of the Christmas Tree Tax, or, How Stupid People Ruin Everything for the Rest of Us.


Christmas tree
(A very silly, but nonetheless live, Christmas tree I once had.)


Everything that is wrong with our political process can be found within the sad, miserable story of the Christmas Tree Tax That Never Was. Some of you have already heard this story and don't wish to re-hash it.  That's fine; you can go read something else. This is for the rest of you.

Let's begin at the beginning, shall we?

In 1996, Congress passed the Commodity Promotion, Research, and Information Act.  The idea was to let farmers vote in a self-funded marketing campaign, and if the vote passed, some small fee would be assessed on farmers (who voted for it in the first place) and the money would be collected by the USDA and spent on a marketing camapaign.  This was widely seen as a good thing, and milk, honey, pork, avocado, and blueberry producers have all voted in a fee to fund a marketing effort.  You've seen those commercials. But it's more than the commercials–it's having someone who can talk to the media, someone who can fund research, someone who can place a magazine ad or sponsor a parade or whatever needs to be done.

And this is a good idea on so many levels.  For one thing, we all want our blueberry and avocado farmers to have a good market for their fruit, right?  And in general, we want to see blueberries advertised at least as well as Pop-Tarts are, right?

The fact is that Big Industry has deep pockets for marketing.  Soft drinks, potato chips, candy–all that crap benefits from massive ad campaigns.  Strawberries don't stand a chance–unless the strawberry farmers organize.

And asking farmers to voluntarily chip in for some little effort run by some little group has been tried and didn't work, which is why Congress, at the request of the farmers, created a mechanism by which a larger and more official process could be put into place to fund these ad campaigns.

So that's what they do!  And it's great! They vote themselves in some small little assessment, everybody pays it, and commercials for their products appear on TV.  If they liked how that worked out, they can vote to keep it going, and if they don't like how it worked out, they can bag the whole thing.  As a small business owner, I can assure you that banding together with other local businesses for a shared marketing campaign is the way to go. One blueberry farmer can just not do this on their own.

Which brings us to the Christmas tree farmers.

Christmas tree farmers have seen a decline in sales as artificial tree sales have gone up.  During that same period, the artificial tree manufacturers have spent big bucks on ads, while the tree farmers have spent bupkis.

Fake christmas tree
How could a humble farmer compete with this magnificent fake thing?

And before you get all "artificial trees are better anyway because (insert your reason here)," just remember that (a) having a live tree does not deprive some forest of its young–they're grown in rows on farms, and (b) young, growing trees sequester all sorts of carbon, so they're probably good for the planet overall, and (c) it's a farmer growing a thing here in the United States, and I'm just generally in favor of us having farmers who grow stuff.  Period. Oh, and (d) some of us like a live tree. You don't have to. Some of us do.

So the vote passed, on and November 8 the USDA published a final rule, and offered reasonable, thoughtful responses to a few minor criticims and mostly unfounded complaints, and the program was all set to move forward. So then what happened?

The Heritage Foundation.  That's what happened. I refuse to link to their website, but the gist of it was: "The economy is barely growing and 9 percent of the American people have no jobs. Is a new tax on Christmas trees the best President Obama can do?"

And then Fox News got involved, and others of that ilk I also refuse to link to, and we got "This new tax is a smack in the face to each and every American who celebrates Christmas."

That's right. Of course.  President Obama woke up one morning in his usual Christmas-hating mood and, casting about for a way to take more money out of the pockets of starving Americans, personally enacted a new onerous, fifteen-cent tax on Christmas. He personally did this because he hates Christmas. And America.


If it had ended there, this whole story would have been just another example of how silly things get here in These United States. But that's not where it ended. Believe it or not, the White House actually caved to the pressure and suspended the rule pending further review.

So there will be no marketing program for Christmas trees.  Even though the farmers wanted it.  Even though we're all supposed to be pro-small farmers and pro-small business.  Even though the fifteen cents per tree could not possibly hurt hard-working Americans shopping at the tree lot, and probably wouldn't even show up in the retail price of the tree. Even though really small farmers–under 500 trees–were completely exempt, so it didn't even hurt the really small tree farmers.

It's pathetic.  And even though it doesn't matter what I think, and even though nobody's listening, I would just like to say for the record that I am in favor of farmers tending to their fields of living green things.  And I am in favor of some of us–not all of us, you certainly don't have to, but some of us–bringing fragrant evergreen boughs indoors in December.

But most of all?  I am in favor of small groups of farmers or other businesspeople coming together and organizing and creating a plan that will allow them to work and grow and prosper.  That just sounds so very American.  It seems like only a crazy person would object to that. 

And that's precisely what happened.



  1. So who dropped the ball? Why did they not run the campaign? Because The Heritage Foundation made a fuss? So, some people complained and they decided to drop the program? I am still not sure why the program was dropped?

  2. The only good action on this is a reaction, a push-back, a reckoning for those who are really hurting Christmas and small businesses and (ultimately) our country. WHY DOES FOX HATE CHRISTMAS?!? The new (Winter/Spring) issue of Greenwoman is at the printers now, but if I would have known about this a week ago, I would have loved to publish it. I’m putting it on Facebook and my blog.

  3. I really like that Christmas tree and will try to talk my life partner into getting one just like it this year. It symbolizes my minimalist approach to the holiday.

  4. Trey–to answer your question–yes, the USDA suspended the program “due to recent events.”

    I added a link in the post to the subsequent Federal Register notice. Basically it says that “While we are
    confident that the Christmas Tree
    program is compliant with all
    applicable law and supported by the
    domestic Christmas tree industry, the
    program will be stayed to provide
    additional time for the Department to
    reach out to the Christmas Tree industry
    and the public to explain how a
    research and promotion program is a
    producer driven program to support
    American farmers.”

  5. I’ve never understood why anyone wanted a fake tree. Instead of going to the farm to choose & cut one (family & outdoors – what’s better?) you mosey to the attic/basement/storage unit to dust it off. Instead of that wonderful fragrance & – oh ! is that a bird’s nest in there? – you get off-gassing & lead & carcinogens and the same look every year. Then you put the darn thing in a landfill when its no longer useable, rather than mulch it or use it as a fence post (we do).

    I get a tree like the one in your photo every year. Of course, given my addiction to all things Christmas, it arrives looking all Charlie-Brown-ish & spends the next 2-4 weeks as very Rockefeller-Center.

    The media really does distort stories to suit their need to hype everything. In this economy that means anything that takes even just a few pennies from your pocket is going to get blown out of proportion. This post illustrates that to the nth degree.

  6. How may chemicals and CO2 from equipment go into tree growth and harvesting? Does that make carbon sequestration a wash when it comes to live trees? I think that’s a big issue you need to address, too, before I go pick up that tree on the side of the rood that fell off someone’s car.(I mean, go BUY a tree….)

  7. You write:
    ” I am in favor of small groups of farmers or other businesspeople coming together and organizing”
    -That sounds suspiciously like Union Organizing or (gasp!) Socialism. Or both.
    Remember, America is a God Fearing Nation, and there is Festivus for the Restofus. . .

  8. Benjamin, this doesn’t have to be a debate over what kind of tree you should get or I should get. The point is that our insane political process/media craziness machine has gotten in the way of farmers organizing a modest little marketing campaign–and that is truly absurd.

  9. First, the Happy Part: My future Christmas tree and I thank you for this post. The multi-generation Ludwig Family from Maine has been growing and selling their trees in Salem, MA and other communities for over 40 years. They make a few bucks, pay their bills and rub liniment on their sore muscles when it’s all done.

    We visit Ludwig Trees, hunt for the right size, get giddy from the spruce fragrance, feel slightly embarrassed while driving home with such a large tree atop a small car and anticipate the charm it will bring into our home.

    The Mad Part: It’s time for the Amwell-gate Commission. This morning I sought out and read the article in the 11/20/11 NYT magazine on Range Resources fracture practices in PA. Summary: 2005; Dick Cheney; Halliburton Loophole; exemption from compliance to Safe Drinking Water Act; “proprietary secret”; non-disclosure of chemicals used; dead animals; sick children; Love Canal redux. Oh, happy day.

    Slugs show more determination and destroy our plants faster than our government takes action to protect our environment. By the time state and federal EPA officials get around to really understanding what is happening there will be no prevention. An implementation of the Precautionary Principle? Ha, how naive of me.

    Lisa Jackson stated that, so far, reports show no evidence that chemicals are filtering through to the water supply. Of course the reports show no evidence. Much of what is in these reports is based on data from the for-profit companies and then edited by government employees. Funding cutbacks prevent our EPA from doing their own research.

    Here is a plan: Lisa Jackson needs to brush up on her knowledge of geobiochemical cycles, call Tom Vilsack and ask him to join her on a site visit to Amwell Township, PA. Then they would know first hand that something is going wrong and it’s happening on their watch.

    Aaaargh. . . there’s more. In another free enterprise market, big bucks companies are word-smithing their new marketing campaign and they have their partner, fear, on their side. “Our soil is toxic. Christmas trees are toxic. Your children’s health is at risk. Sad isn’t it? Buy fake.” Does anyone see a pattern here?

    I’ll write to the President and First Lady and let them know what I think. After that, I’ll figure out how to proceed. I was going to buy Michelle’s new garden book. Now, maybe not. I’ll have a bill to pay in the future.

  10. Amy, our government doesn’t give a rat’s ass about anyone else. So maybe I just get flustered with the core debate too easily. Everyone thinks I’m nuts when I say it’s time to march on Washington, into the capitol, toss ’em out, and put ourselves back in charge so we have a democracy again. Like the economy–it’d take like 6 months to fix the thing but no one does, too many special interests and navel gazers. And don’t get me started about funding corn / ethanol growers, big oil, banks, pizza. But this is a simplified rant, I know. I just have to go get a drink.

  11. Nobody in Washington fought for the tax. They just sorta put it out there at the wrong time and expected it to be accepted—because of course people read and study–and get themselves educated on what all the impact might be. People are stupid in my opinion. That’s how government got so big and worthless. 99% of the people out there have no idea what this tax was about. That’s the problem–who actually knows what goes on in Washington? Makes me so stinking mad. I was for the Christmas tree tax because it promoted the trees. I’m a Fox News fan. I’m a conservative. I’m an environmentalist. I’m a hug a tree person. So not all us Fox watchers agree with doing away with the tax. I’m from NC–one of the top tree growers. Of course I wanted it. Until people start doing research for themselves and studying up on things—good and bad taxes will continue to pass with most of America being oblivious to what is going on. They simply don’t give a crap. They don’t care unless it’s happening in their backyard.

  12. “I am in favor of small groups of farmers or other businesspeople coming together and organizing and creating a plan that will allow them to work and grow and prosper. That just sounds so very American. It seems like only a crazy person would object to that.

    And that’s precisely what happened.”

    Hmmmm, but nobody really objected to the farmers organizing…. Why wouldn’t Christmas Tree Grower’s Associations chip in to fund more than just enough for a “little effort” run by some “little group”?

    Also, why do manufacturers of artificial trees have such an advantage over Christmas Tree farmers when it comes to marketing?

    The problems with Big Industry are nothing compared to the problems with Big Government, especially when it comes to the sponsorship of agriculture.

    Thanks for letting me offer my two cents…I enjoyed this provokative post!

  13. Well the good news is that in their zeal to destroy the federal government (in earlier days this would amount to treason) outfits like Heritage and Faux News can’t help but to alienate more and more of their own followers. As Anna Looper said, NC is a major Christmas tree producer. These are conservative, rural country folk almost by definition of what they are producing.

    It’s the propaganda that affects them directly that is going to make them begin to question the whole conservative media complex and how truthy it really is.

  14. @ Kaviani & Susan – Not believing does not necessarily mean not getting a Christmas tree. I know at least one Jew & several non-practitioners/atheists/agnostics who get the tree, do the whole gifty thing, but just avoid the religious origins of the holiday. In my view, Christmas is really two holidays wrapped in one – the religious one for those who believe, & the secular one centered on family & friends for anyone who wishes to participate. The tree is secular unless you wish to adorn it with religious symbols.

  15. We in the garden center trades have been watching this. Seems many are looking for the same type of program in our trade. Some grand scheme that will allow us to “get the word out”. I would say after this the likely hood has diminished, which in my mind is a good thing.

    The White House and USDA caved to political pressure during an election cycle. No one was willing to stick their neck out and do the right thing. Direct you anger at Washington, not the misguided fringe elements in society. That will get us nowhere.

  16. I think it’s important to distinguish between the fact that this was an assessment the farmers and processors pay–not a tax that consumers would pay directly. For example, I’m a tree-fruit farmer, and pay assessments for marketing (and research, lobbying, etc) based on the tonnage I produce, but there’s not a tax on fruit that consumers themselves pay directly for these activities. Sure, pricing may (or may not) reflect the assessment in any given year, depending on what the market will bear.

    The tree farmers are free to form their own groups, independent of the federal government if they want (which is what tree fruit farmers and others have done). And I imagine in some regions, they have.

  17. The folks who voted the tree tax down want less government, not more, even if it is something that they would agree is useful. Why get the government involved in private business? Let the tree farmers unit and do the marketing. Never mind that they have not been able to to it themselves for whatever reason and the government could probably do a good job at it, who knows?

  18. Okay, I know it’s silly to get in a debate on the comments section of my blog, but: It was not voted down! It was voted in! And the farmers asked the government to get involved! Believe it or not, farmers and the USDA have a close, friendly relationship. Farmers need the USDA. They are not seen as the bad guys. I have seen many, many examples of close, friendly, helpful relationships between farmers and USDA staff.

    The farmers voted for this, and it’s a totally normal thing that many other groups of farmers (blueberries, avocados, milk, eggs) have done. Farmers are the ones who asked Congress to create a way for them to work together with USDA on marketing campaigns. Again–the farmers want this!

    Nobody voted it down! The media made it sound like an evil tax on Christmas, when it was simply a voluntary effort to raise money for a much-needed marketing campaign. If the Christmas tree farmers are for it, and the amount of money is so miniscule (15 cents per tree) as to not hurt anyone’s wallet (it probably won’t even get passed on to the consumer), why on earth should Fox News be against it?

  19. Amy Fox News is not against this. They don’t care one iota. This was just a very easy thing to manipulate and use as tool for a larger agenda. In their case faux outrage to keep the ratings high. From these few comments you can see how easy it is for people to only pay attention on a peripheral level and there are very high class, high intellect commenters here for the most part.

    Think of all those fools out there in TV land and how easy they are to manipulate.

  20. Some Christmas tree growers in NC have tried to form groups to promote sales, advertising, and education. It was a voluntary movement and was gung-ho at first. Then government regulations and environmental concerns for pesticides and run-off pollution starting dipping in the funds of growers. Small growers could no longer afford to give to the cause. Larger growers became the voice for all and the little guys decided they’d just rather be on their own. They couldn’t compete. This lack of contributions started to affect the entire Christmas tree grower org across the USA–and so their lobbyist pushed for the 15 cent fee needed to beef up the industry–because–everyone was not giving their fair share. Those NC growers who were in support of the ‘Christmas Tree Tax’ ( fee collected by growers who sold more than 500 trees per farm) are those who feel the government has taken so much from them in the form of regulations—perhaps this could be a way to recoup some of the expenses. The government is good at telling businesses what to do–but then they don’t care at what cost to that business. I’m all for less government–but if they are gonna pass the tax–I want to make sure NC( one of the most regulated states in America) gets their fair share.

  21. I see what the problem is with this whole debate on your site Amy—some folks think this is just a ‘fee imposed by the industry on itself’ quoted from an ABC news article online. –It’s not that simple. Read my comment previously stating that every grower was not giving their fair share—thus–it is being asked of the government to step in and MAKE sure that every grower gives his fair share. NC growers like this since it will be an across each state mandate. Those who oppose just don’t like government telling them what to do. The government has decided to delay the decision because of all the nasty publicity. In the end if it is passed—you can bet it will be passed to the consumer.

  22. I also like your tree. I am always looking for a tree from which I can hang my ornaments instead of laying them on tree! It reminds me of ones I saw in Germany and Austria a few years ago.

  23. We indeed are in such a misery because of people who favor a tax on Xmas trees. I cannot believe the gardeners who are in favor of a tax to market something. every national marketing campaign in this industry has failed.

    The ignorant thought that we can tax our way to prosperity is absurd.

    The TROLL

  24. I have suggestion don’t use fake tree. Instead of going to the farmers and choose any one good quality trees and cut out and enjoy with your family and outdoors friends.i getting one tree every years and enjoy Christmas. i agree Wish we could figure out how to tax stupidity, it certainly seems to be a growth industry.

  25. This is one of the best articles I have read in a long time and I read every comment. I would like to contribute my two cents to this very good discussion.

    I’m into the real thing whether it just be trees or greens, often times I will go back multiple times during the season to get greens. And maybe that is an angle (marketing) approach. I put them everywhere inside and out. I make it a point to know where my tree and/or greens come from and yes, I am fortunate to live in the Pacific Northwest where I have that option. Again maybe another angle – ask where the material comes from. These are two quite questions all of us can do when shopping, this in turns starts getting the word out about priorities.
    On the larger part of this article the 15 cents tax and the federal government it just makes me tired. For too long I have watched and been subject to small farming and citizens of this country being passed over, unsupported and down-right disregarded. Is not the strength of a nation in its citizens who can support and sustain itself? Are we, the voting and taxpaying public not the ones who contribute to the funding of the federal government and put individuals in roles of authority? Why do not these individuals care – if one of the agreements is that small businesses will save the current financial state of this country, then why are stupid and uniformed practices even proposed? Don’t you think that big industry (agriculture) would step up and partner with local business and say “hey, let’s work together!”, this is the U.S. we are talking about – let’s help get US back on our feet – keep business going which in turn supports spending which it turns helps keep people in housing and eating.

    In this season of miracles what if there were regional and dare I say a national week of collaboration between small farming, big industry and the federal that says “buy your greens, support US/U.S.” Big industry does the marketing because they have the resources, small farming provides the product and the federal government actually steps up and supports the citizens of this country. And the White House puts a spot on its home page about supporting the small businesses that supply the trees and greens during this season. Just to be clear, there are many events where trees and greens can be used during this season, the solstice is one of my favorites.

    I won’t be buying Michelle’s book either even as much as I like her inspiration on getting the White House gardens back into usage. I’ll be writing my elected officials, again, knowing it won’t be heard either but it is one way I can participate. Even though I am not a big fan of Facebook, if any farms or local business selling greens are on it, I’ll be happy to “friend” you.

    Lastly, I want to acknowledge that there are a lot of great partnering activities going on around small business and I want to applaud everyone who consciously makes that choice every day to shop locally or domestically.

  26. yes, indeed, the tree you’re showing is truly pathetic ! I can’t believe any child would see stars in his eyes when looking at this skeleton of a tree !
    At botanicbay, we love trees, we have planted the diversity the size of our plot would allow, but there is one thing I would not have in my lounge : a dying tree arrayed with tinsels.

  27. @ Botanicbay – that’s a Silvertip or Red Fir – it grows that way naturally. And many people here in the West prefer them for their unique color & look – and the ability to suspend ornaments from the branches and have them actually hang. And my children have indeed gotten stars in their eyes gazing upon them, whether in the house as seasonal decor (every year, the only tree I want), or in their native habitat in the midst of summer.

  28. I like the idea of the government marketing more. I think big government should invest in some big R&D and then market the results. Like better solar panels or cradle to cradle materials. Why not use the power of big government to create demand for good ideas and products.

    But as far as plastic vs live trees I like this idea best:

  29. I’m with Mary Gray, I would gladly pay an extra fifteen cents to help the tree growers, but I am not real crazy about the government being involved. There’s got to be another organization that could manage it more efficiently.

  30. Anyone willing to pay more for something can gladly write a check to the government if you think your taxes are not high enough. Fact is almost everyone who thinks taxes should be higher has never opened their checkbook and made such a contribution.

    I will not buy a tree this year in protest. So write a lot of checks for 15 cents to make up the $60. What morons

    The TROLL

  31. Well TROLL, you can just keep on buying cheap crap from China and buy it again when it breaks if it makes you feel better and justified in your self righteous indignation. Just don’t get all flummoxed when US workers and the US economy keeps getting poorer and poorer and the federal government keeps borrowing money from China.

  32. You go, Christopher! And anyone who wants to boycott Christmas trees to send a message to Christmas tree farmers that you don’t like the idea of them chipping in for a marketing campaign? Be sure and also boycott eggs, milk, blueberries, avocado, honey, pork, beef, cotton, mushrooms,lamb, peanuts, mango, popcorn, potatoes, sorghum, soybeans, and watermelon. Because those farmers also voted for similar campaigns. Seems to me that the world didn’t end when they did it, but hey. You don’t like it–let them know you’re unhappy with how they run their affairs.

    And to those of you who say you don’t think the USDA should be involved–the farmers wanted them involved! I know it’s hard to believe that any government agency can do anything worthwhile, but I’ve met and interviewed many farmers who see the USDA as a beneficial service to them, providing valuable research and support. If the farmers want to do this, and they want the USDA to be the umbrella agency who handles it, why not let them do it that way? It was the farmers’ idea in the first place to set it up this way. They have to initiate a marketing program and vote it in. Nothing is being forced on them. They CHOOSE to work with the USDA!

    Finally (and I know no one is reading at this point), it’s crazy to assume that all government agencies are bad and inefficient and only the private sector is good. Hasn’t anyone ever had a problem with a phone company, cable company, bank, hospital, auto mechanic, construction company, insurance company, etc? Hasn’t anyone ever received bad service or faulty goods from any store or restaurant? Ever? Sure, we all have. Yet some of us continue to insist that the private sector is all good and the government is all bad.

    Sigh. I have a headache now.

  33. Amy, I’m still reading! And I’m completely behind you about government vs. private sector. People seem to have forgotten that government IS the people, but only if we participate. And yeah, it’s unwieldy and not always perfect. But look how accountable the private sector has been lately….

  34. We have an American artificial tree manufacturer in the next town over………
    That is where I will buy.

    So much for self righteous indignation.
    So speak for yourself Mr. C NC

    Another tax is yet another tax.

    I suppose you are the only one who will write a check and send it to the xmas tree association if the tax does not go through.

    Some how I don’t think you will put your checkbook where sap line is……..

    I will choose self righteous over hypocrisy any day………………

    The TROLL

  35. @Amy:

    This tree thing was proposed as a tax. If Chicken Little wants to contribute to market fees fine………..
    The Egg Board never proposed a marketing fee as a tax and then ask Congress/Gov’t to support it.

    The TROLL

  36. Greg: That’s exactly what the Egg Board did. They are funded through the exact same process that the Christmas Tree Farmers went through–a voluntary process to vote on an assessment, then have the USDA collect the assessment and set up a marketing strategy. Follow the link in my post to see a complete list of ag producers who have gone through this process, or check out the Egg Board’s own page on the subject:

  37. “We have an American artificial tree manufacturer in the next town over………
    That is where I will buy.” The TROLL

    Try not to have a conniption when they add tax to the purchase of your fake tree.

  38. Ditto tibs. Not sure what the beef is here. If it actually is a good idea, it seems like the farmers would voluntarily band together and get it done. I hate it when garden talk strays into politics.

  39. I agree with Trey. The tax isn’t passed to the final consumer. The country is expensive to run and taxes are the only way to pay for it unless we start pillaging again. Considering the number of christmas trees I purchase each year I dont think it would matter even if the tax was to the final consumer.

  40. So in the future when I hear a Christmas tree farmer complain about their lack of sales due to a weak market voice I will have my facts straight. I know that if I was involved in an industry and some media loud mouth took my message and bent it to their warped view and used it as a weapon against me, they would not be able to shut me up. Someday average everyday Americans will wise up, put down the Koolaid and stop letting these marketing wizards double speak or spin the facts to their agenda. Its almost bad enough to cause people to camp out and scream at the fat cats… oh wait

  41. A great post, but “Stupid People” are not the culprits here. The folks at the Heritage Foundation and Fox News are anything but stupid. However, they use their brains in totally unprincipled ways to promote the ideological agenda they are committed to. There seems no distortion or lie that is too much for them, as long as it serves their agenda. And while it’s tempting to call the Obamaa administration’s capitulation “stupid,” it was one in a long series of capitulations based on (questionable) political calculations, I suspect.

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