Monday, February 17, 2020
Feb. 17, 2020

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Port Slowdown: Christmas tree farmers’ work may go to mulch

The Columbian

SAN FRANCISCO — A West Coast dockworkers’ slowdown that’s curbing overseas shipment of Christmas trees may have a domestic benefit: cheaper evergreens in the continental U.S.

Productivity at the Port of Tacoma, one of the largest Christmas-tree exporting points in the U.S., has fallen about 40 percent since Oct. 31 amid contract talks between longshoremen and their employers, said Tara Mattina, a spokeswoman for the port. The delays have left cargo containers full of trees and other perishable products piling up at terminals, she said.

“If those trees aren’t shipped abroad, they’re probably going to be cut and sold around here, which is going to drive the price down for everybody and their farmers,” said Casey Grogan, 38, who manages Silver Bells Tree Farm in Silverton, Ore., for his parents, Charlie and Sally Grogan. “We’re all competing in the same market here.”

Growers are just now recovering from a decade of oversupply that forced several out of business, according to companies including Silver Bells and Molalla Tree Farms of Molalla, Ore. The Pacific Northwest is the nation’s largest supplier of holiday evergreens. Oregon and Washington alone produce 8.7 million a year, enough to decorate about 8 percent of U.S. households.

“So great, maybe this season, they’re just about giving Christmas trees away because they can’t export them,” said Peter Friedmann, executive director of the Agriculture Transportation Coalition. “You know what happens next year? That guy who was growing Christmas trees and had about three weeks to make all his money for the year is out of business. And then we’re buying our Christmas trees from British Columbia, where they’re not having problems.”

About 20,000 members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union in 29 ports from San Diego to the Canadian border have been working without a contract since July 1. Crews have slowed container-handling by half in Seattle and Tacoma, walked out mid-shift in Oakland, Calif., and been unavailable to run cranes in Los Angeles and Long Beach, Calif., according to Wade Gates, a spokesman for the Pacific Maritime Association, representing terminal operators and shipping lines.

The Washington-based Agriculture Transportation Coalition, which focuses on ocean shipping issues, sent a letter Monday to President Barack Obama asking him to step in and return the ports to full operations. The appeal was signed by about 60 organizations including the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the National Potato Council and the National Corn Growers Association.

Brenda Barnes, an export account manager for freight forwarder Geo. S. Bush & Co. in Portland, said she handles orders for 300,000 to 500,000 Christmas trees a year. About 30 percent of those orders have been canceled because port delays meant some wouldn’t have arrived by Christmas, she said.

“The trees are already cut, so they’ve got to do something with them,” Barnes said by telephone Tuesday. “They’ll just be sitting around in the U.S. market and then go to a chipper and become bark.”

John Tillman said he fears the time for federal intervention has passed for him. Tillman has 2,214 Christmas trees in containers in Tacoma that were supposed to leave the U.S. two weeks ago. His Hong Kong buyer had expected them by next week. “If he doesn’t purchase trees next year,” Tillman said, “we’re going to have to come up with 2,214 new homes.”