Yes, the Search for the White House Christmas Tree Has Already Begun

Tree growers descend on southwest Michigan this week to choose which farm will provide the White House with its Christmas tree.

National Journal
Matt Vasilogambros
July 22, 2014, 1 a.m.

It’s Christ­mas in Ju­ly, sort of.

While the White House Christ­mas Tree doesn’t ar­rive in Wash­ing­ton un­til late Novem­ber, tree farm­ers meet Fri­day in south­w­est Michigan to de­cide who among them gets to provide the tree that will sit in the Blue Room. For Christ­mas tree farm­ers, this con­test is the pin­nacle of their pro­fes­sion.

Grow­ing trees is more than put­ting sap­lings in the ground and wait­ing years for it to grow. Tree farm­ers de­scribe their pro­fes­sion like a Hol­ly­wood movie where a char­ac­ter must de­fuse a bomb: Does he snip the green wire or the red wire? Every de­cision to trim a stem or snip a needle could mean the dif­fer­ence between a los­ing or win­ning tree.

“Trees don’t just look that way nat­ur­ally,” says Rick Dun­gey, the ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Na­tion­al Christ­mas Tree As­so­ci­ation. “They go through this tree me­tic­u­lously, branch by branch by branch. They snip off in­di­vidu­al needles. Lord knows how many needles there are on an 8-foot-tall tree — prob­ably thou­sands of them. And they go one at a time. When you see that, you real­ize what it takes to win this con­test.”

That con­test will bring the 14 best tree grow­ers from around the coun­try to­geth­er to show­case their best 6-to-8-foot trees, their fates in the hands of six in­dustry pro­fes­sion­al judges and dozens of loc­al con­sumers who rate on everything from shape and col­or to form and full­ness. Grow­ers must trim and shape trees, yes, but the tree must look nat­ur­al and not look like it’s been trimmed and shaped.

Peterson’s River­view Nurs­ery in Al­l­eg­an, Mich., will be trans­formed from a quiet farm in­to a flut­ter­ing fo­liage fair. Be­fore the win­ner is an­nounced on Sat­urday morn­ing, the 400 tree grow­ers at­tend­ing the con­ven­tion use the time to talk trade and at­tempt to an­swer the dif­fi­cult Christ­mas tree polit­ic­al ques­tions of the day.

“Could a pine ever win the con­test? Could a spruce ever win the con­test?” asks Mar­sha Gray, the ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Michigan Christ­mas Tree As­so­ci­ation. “Those are things we ac­tu­ally talk about!”

The state tree of Michigan is the white pine, but don’t ex­pect any fa­vor­it­ism to­ward that con­ifer. These days, con­sumers lean more to­ward the Fraser fir and the Noble fir. Fifty years ago, Scots pine and Douglas fir ran the gamut. But last year, it was a Douglas fir from Pennsylvania that won. In­dustry fa­vor­ites be damned, a blue spruce might even win.

In the end, however, judging trees is a sub­ject­ive pro­cess. “You could line up 100 people and ask what is the best kind of Christ­mas tree,” Dun­gey says. “And you’re go­ing to get 100 dif­fer­ent an­swers.” When the White House rep­res­ent­at­ive even­tu­ally picks the much lar­ger tree from the win­ning farm, they will choose the one they like best.

There are 14,000 Christ­mas tree farms in the United States, and only one is se­lec­ted for the White House. Such high stakes some­times re­quire ex­treme ac­tions. Gray notes what her friend, a Wash­ing­ton state grow­er, had to go through sev­er­al years ago. The na­tion­al com­pet­i­tion was be­ing held in east­ern Pennsylvania, but he could only fly the tree out to New York City in a re­fri­ger­ated pack­age. He bor­rowed someone’s truck, left Pennsylvania late that night, picked up the tree at 3 a.m., made it back in time to enter the tree in­to the com­pet­i­tion at 7 a.m., and ended up win­ning.

“He went through so much to get his tree there,” Gray said. “But his tree won and he got to go to the White House.”

It’s one of the most icon­ic sights of the hol­i­days in Wash­ing­ton since the tra­di­tion star­ted in 1966: A horse-drawn car­riage pulls up in front of the White House with the gi­ant tree, greeted by the first lady. For one grow­er, that’s their tree. It’s the kind of early Christ­mas present any tree farm­er would want.

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