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Tree lots appear like magic

They started popping up a week or two ago. Right on schedule.

Paved parking lots and vacant spots suddenly sprouting evergreens.

Even in a relatively rural area like the Rogue Valley, Christmas tree lots long ago carved out a spot in modern holiday tradition.

Although the lots have become commonplace, they often have little in common aside from the basic goal. The type of people running the lots varies from spot to spot, as does the way the trees are priced and the way they were selected.

Some lots are run annually by established businesses, like Sure Start Auto Electric at the corner of Riverside Avenue and Barnett Road or Southern Oregon Nursery's on South Pacific Highway.

It was kind of a high school project, says Dennis Trost of Southern Oregon Nursery, who's sold trees there for 19 years. I wrote a paper on Christmas trees and because my parents owned the store I thought we'd try selling them. It just really took off from there.

Steven Cooper of Sure Start says he started selling trees six years ago as a way to make a little extra money for his business during the slow time of year.

Other lots, like Yuletide Trees in the Wal-Mart parking lot, are run by Rogue Valley families who own area tree farms. Steve Andrews and his wife Cindy are in the fourth year of running the lot and a U-cut operation on 24 acres off Madrona Lane.

It was one of those things in life, says Steve Andrews, who works as a contractor. I never expected to have a tree farm. It just happened. The Andrews were in the process of building their own house when a friend convinced them to buy the tree farm. Now Andrews' parents fly in from Chicago every year to help run the lot.

Other lots, like Zees Trees near the Medford Armory or the four Peco Pines lots around Medford, are strictly seasonal businesses. The only time there's any sign the businesses exist is between the last week in November and Christmas.

They aren't worth anything on the 26th, says Bill Zander of Zees Trees, who's sold trees locally for six of the past seven years.

The prices of the trees can vary as well. Depending on species and size, trees can cost anywhere from $15 to more than $100. Six-foot trees purchased for the average home range from about $15-25 for Douglas and grand firs to $25-$35 for noble firs or silver tips.

Though those prices may surprise some frugal shoppers, lot operators _ especially those who buy their trees wholesale _ insist they aren't getting rich.

Industry groups and lot owners say wholesale prices are on the rise, driven by high prices that consumers in urban markets like Southern California are willing to pay.

They think this is California or something and we can get $75 a tree for them, says Steven Cooper of Sure Start. If we are asking $65 for say a 12-foot tree, we aren't paying much less than that. People think it costs me about $4 a tree. The prices are getting so high we've considered not doing the trees.

An employee running the Peco lot at the corner of Main and Columbus streets in Medford, who wouldn't give his full name, said, Everybody thinks you are making a killing. It doesn't happen that way.

We just do a fair markup, says Trost of Southern Oregon Nursery, who sells 1,500 to 1,600 trees a season.

Aside from the pull of larger markets, the wholesale prices are tied to how the lot owners buy the trees as well.

Cooper, for example, says he spent a day and a half hiking around a tree farm, tagging those he wanted. That way, he can stock only high-quality trees.

We try to sell our trees to people willing to pay the price for nice trees, he says.

Others, like Zander, buy trees by the stump _ or a field at a time. He says that allows him to get a better deal and sell at a lower price.

Tree farmers who run lots, like Andrews, also tend to cut trees a section at a time, clearing the way for replanting that is crucial to keeping the farm going year-after-year.

Rising costs aren't the only grinch in the Christmas tree business. Manning the lots, especially while running another business, is also a stress during the busy holiday season.

But despite the long days, lot owners say the job is rewarding.

It's a lot of work but it's a lot of fun, agrees Stacey Cooper, who helps her husband Scott at the Sure Start lot.

Everybody's in a real happy mood, says Trost. You meet a lot of really nice people. More than anything that's what keeps me in it.

Customer Michael McGinty, left, and Southern Oregon Nursery owner Dennis Trost tote McGinty's tree inside for flocking. - Photo by Bob Pennell