O Christmas tree tax... how confused are your critics - The Packer

O Christmas tree tax... how confused are your critics

12/12/2011 08:21:00 AM
Tom Karst

It is a cautionary tale, a story of a helpful if bloodless bureaucracy being played by masterful wordsmiths with a anti-government agenda.

Yes, a funny thing happened on the way to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s promotion program for the fresh Christmas tree industry. 

The Fox News version of the story was headlined “Under Fire, Obama Delays Christmas Tree Tax.” 

From the headline, one could surmise that President Obama had backed off an initial decision to sock it to America in the season of giving. 

Ready to drop a new 15-cent per tree tax on Americans like a lump of coal in the Christmas stocking, Obama was thwarted by right-thinking Americans.

The gall of that man, seriously! 

What was Obama planning to fund with the Christmas tree tax? Conservatives could only assume the revenues would fund excesses such as the First Family vacation in Hawaii or the French Riviera.

The reality is different, of course. 

Closer to the truth is this headline from mlive.com: “Michigan Christmas tree growers left hanging as feds pull the plug on long-awaited program to promote real trees.” 

From the story, a perplexed industry leader said:

“Agriculture tends to be conservative as a whole, and vote Republican,” said Marsha Gray, executive director of the Michigan Christmas Tree Association. Many of those who heard it all unfold on radio pod casts from their tractors, she said, “I’m sure growers (are) thinking ‘I can’t believe Rush Limbaugh just threw us under the bus.’”

Yes, a solid majority of U.S. fresh Christmas tree growers wanted a USDA promotion order.

They were trying for several years to set up such a promotion plan to enhance the image and appeal of fresh-cut trees. 

They had been motivated to promote the benefits of real trees, they say, because of declining market share caused by inroads by made-in-China artificial trees.

Market drop

According to data supplied by proponents of the promotion order, the market share for fresh Christmas trees in the U.S. from 1965 to 2008 declined by 6%. In comparison, the market share of artificial trees has increased zoomed up 655% in the same period.

Sales of fresh Christmas trees dropped from 37 million trees in 1991 to just 22 million trees in 2002. A voluntary promotion effort increased demand, but fizzled when funds dried up after about three years.

“The decline in revenue is attributable to the voluntary nature of these programs,” the USDA said.

“Therefore, the proponents have determined that they need a mechanism that would be sustainable over time. They believe that a national Christmas tree research and promotion program would accomplish this goal,” according to the Nov. 8 Federal Register

Growers are naturally chapped because their efforts to work together to promote fresh Christmas trees (domestic and imported) and fend off cheap Chinese artificial tree imports are somehow being portrayed as a wacky liberal agenda. 

Misinformation killed the Christmas tree promotion order. For example, some said the promotion order would hurt smaller producers, but producers and importers who marketed under 500 trees would have been exempt under the program. 

David Addington of the Heritage Foundation set the stage for the Obama retreat. 
In his column headlined “Obama Couldn’t Wait: His New Christmas Tree Tax” on Nov. 8, Addington skewered President Obama and paid scant attention to the fact that growers, not the president, wanted the 15-cent assessment.

Here is one barb:

“The economy is barely growing, and 9% of the American people have no jobs. Is a new tax on Christmas trees the best President Obama can do? And, by the way, the American Christmas tree has a great image that doesn’t need any help from the government.”

GOP lawmakers piled on. While Christmas tree growers were out in the field tending their crop and hoping for better times and new promotion efforts, the Web exploded. 

Google “Christmas tree tax” and you will find 132 million search results.

USDA backed off on Nov. 14 in a Federal Register notice:

“On November 8, 2011, a final rule was published in the Federal Register ... establishing an industry-funded promotion, research, and information program for fresh cut Christmas trees, effective November 9, 2011. Due to recent events, the regulations are stayed in order to provide all interested persons, including the Christmas tree industry and the general public, an opportunity to become more familiar with the program.”

Can this “wait-and-see” approach work? Of course not. It is out of the question in this political environment. There is no way the “Christmas tree tax” will be revived during the 2012 election cycle.

I’m disappointed USDA career officials weren’t able to turn back the White House impulse to stand down and vacate support for the promotion program. 

After all, marketers of avocados, mangoes, potatoes and many other crops rely on those USDA promotion programs.   

And if the fruit and vegetable industry ever decides it needs and wants a national generic promotion program — and it should, in my view — it should demand assurance the USDA and the White House can find their backbone to fend off baseless political attacks.

Comments (4) Leave a comment 

e-Mail (required)


characters left

Texas  |  December, 12, 2011 at 09:12 PM

Contrary to what you are being told by the "Christmas Tree Industry" some of us growers will be forced by our federal government to pay to fund generic promotions of Christmas Trees against our better judgments. Fines and penalties for nonpayment of the Christmas Tree Tax are a minimum of $1,000 to a maximum of $10,000 per violation. Each day constitutes a new violation. What the "Christmas Tree Industry" is not telling you is that the only help from the Federal Government that they truly want in developing a Promotional message for our industry is just what I listed above and that is the force of government to get growers to pay into their program. I guess I am just a little old fashioned because I still believe that if an industry group would like for me to pay into an advertising campaign, then they should sell me on that campaign instead of using the force of government to make me pay into it. I guess the Country we live in today is much different than it used to be. I can only hope that one of these days soon, enough people will wise up when the government says they are here to help, and freedom loving people will just say No Thank You because we have seen where that has gotten us. One size fits all government programs benefit one group to the detriment of another group and from what I have seen of these programs, I unfortunately will be one of the latter.

Dan Gerawan    
Reedley, CA  |  December, 13, 2011 at 08:40 AM

It's no surprise that the media didn't accurately portray the situation, but that doesn't change the fact that the federal government was going to force growers to promote their product. Just because the majority of that industry wanted to doesn't make it right. Majority consensus does not establish the morality of an action. Despite the industry's claim to be Republican-voting Limbaugh fans, the fact is they wanted to use government power to force dissenting growers to pay for advertising. With such a "wacky liberal agenda," political attacks are not baseless. Should the Association of Industry Trade Journals (if there is such a thing) be allowed to force The Packer to fund a "buy trade journals" campaign? Compelling people to pay for promotion is clearly an abuse of government power. Advertising should be voluntary. Christmas tree growers should proceed on a voluntary basis and not petition the federal government to force anyone to pay for it.

Tom Karst    
Lenexa, KS  |  December, 13, 2011 at 03:03 PM

Thanks for your thoughtful response. But doesn't the fact that the promotion program could be ended by referendum give everyone a voice? Doesn't the fact that an assessment would be applied equally to all (with the exception of smaller producers and handlers) appeal to your sense of fair play? Can you expect the industry to effectively collect voluntary contributions for promotions to stave off artificial trees from China? Doesn't your industry need to create demand? Tom Karst

Texas  |  December, 14, 2011 at 07:48 PM

Mr. Karst in response to your reply to Mr. Gerawan: Based on the USDA comment period it is said that a majority of growers are in favor of the program. The problem with their claim to a majority is that nothing was done to ensure that only growers who would be required by law to contribute to this program were the ones who commented in favor of the program. I actually had a grower who would be exempted by the 500 tree exemption tell me "Why wouldn't I be in favor of this program when I get to use everybody else's money to promote Christmas Trees." Did he comment in favor of this program to the USDA and is his comment included in the count to determine majority? Also doesn't exempting 75% (9,155 of the 12,255 farms exempted) of growers who most likely would not be in favor of these programs if they were required by law to contribute reek of a form of "gerrymandering". How is it "fair" to tax a grower who sells 520 trees for $11 a tree and not to tax a grower who sells 480 trees for $30 a tree, which based on the types of Christmas Trees that can be grown in a certain region is a very real possibility. Seems to fly in the face of Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution which states that "...all Duties, Imposts, and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States." Continued

Feedback Form
Leads to Insight