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The Last Time Oregon's Christmas Tree Farmers Faced Down A Trade War


Mexico and the European Union announced this week that they’re striking back against President Trump’s tariffs on imported steel and aluminum — with tariffs of their own. Mexico will impose around $3 billion worth of tariffs on U.S. exports like pork, apples, potatoes and cheese. And those tariffs are worrying agricultural businesses across the Northwest.

But this isn’t the first time local farmers have been in the crossfire over a dispute with Mexico. Back in 2009, the U.S. government found itself unable to reach an agreement with Mexico over international trucking. Eventually, Mexico fired back with tariffs on some agricultural goods, including Christmas trees.

Rick Schaefer is the manager of Holiday Specialtrees, a Christmas tree farm in Clackamas County. He told OPB “Weekend Edition” host John Notarianni that the tariffs caught him and other tree growers in Oregon completely off guard.

“It just blindsides you,” Schaefer said. “You’ve been doing business for years and it just slams you. You just have to brace for it and move on.”

Oregon tree farmers have faced down a trade war before.

Oregon tree farmers have faced down a trade war before.

Courtesy of Holiday Specialtrees

Schaefer estimates a third of his business is exporting trees to other countries, mostly Mexico. He had no choice but to lower his prices by 20 percent for his Mexican customers rather than risk losing a year’s worth of sales.

“Most people don’t know it, but Christmas trees are like strawberries — you can’t just keep them in the ground,” he said. “When they’re ripe you need to cut them.”

Holiday Specialtrees was able to survive the hit, and the tariffs were rolled back the following year. Still, he said the tariff had long lasting effects on the Oregon Christmas tree industry.

“A lot of the Christmas tree growers went out of business. Mexico takes about a million trees from Oregon and we ship roughly 5 million so that’s 20 percent,” Schaefer said. “A lot of growers quit growing and a lot of them just simply went bankrupt.”

With another trade war brewing, Schaefer is worried that his business could be swept up in the conflict again.

“If there was a 20 percent tariff on us, say it’s a $20 tree now, that’s a $4 hit. That’s a big chunk,” he said. “That would hurt us, I’m definitely concerned about that.”

Listen to the full conversation by using the audio player at the top of this story.

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