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Haley Mills of the Tom Sawyer Tree Farm unpacks Frazier fir trees for sale underneath a giant tent on Manufacturers Road at the foot of the Olgiati Bridge on Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015, in Chattanooga, Tenn. These freshly-cut trees are shipped from Cashiers, N.C., and Mills expects to sell about 100 trees a day.

A decade ago, maybe more, it was normal for Andy Bickford to sell $47,000 worth of white pine Christmas trees about this time of year out of his Pikeville Christmas tree farm, Little Mountain Tree Farm.

It's an 80.5-acre operation that Bickford inherited from his grandfather, and one he has operated now for the last 40 years, during the ups — and currently, the downs.

"The Christmas tree business crashed when [the economy] did," he said. "People couldn't afford the gas, they couldn't afford the drive up and they went and bought artificial trees they could use several years."

At Little Mountain Tree Farm, things "slowly trickled down to nothing," he said.

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Haley Mills of the Tom Sawyer Tree Farm arranges Frazier fir trees for sale underneath a giant tent on Manufacturers Road at the foot of the Olgiati Bridge on Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015, in Chattanooga, Tenn. These freshly-cut trees are shipped from Cashiers, N.C., and Mills expects to sell about 100 trees a day.

But he hopes for better days — especially this week.

Thanksgiving weekend and Black Friday are traditionally a boon for Christmas tree farmers and the retailers and street-side tree lots they supply.

"Around Thanksgiving, everybody is wanting to get their trees," said Bickford. "Usually around Black Friday, everybody wants trees on their lots."

And according to the National Christmas Tree Association, plenty of Americans still buy real Christmas trees. Last year, consumers bought more than 26 million real trees, and the year before, more than 33 million real trees were sold.

Real tree sales maintain a roughly two-to-one margin over artificial tree sales every year, with both segments doing over $1 billion in annual sales.

Rick Dungey, executive director of the National Christmas Tree Association, said the market is healthy "for those who are still growing and selling trees."

Dungey said 2013 was an odd year, and that many attribute the spike to households buying more than one tree.

He also said it's hard to determine why real tree sales vary — consistently rising and falling — year to year.

"So many factors can impact in any given year how many total trees are purchased," he said. "Weather can have a lot to do with it, too."

Dungey also said that because Thanksgiving can fall on different weeks year-to-year, Christmas tree sales don't necessarily follow Black Friday — they might spike the weekend before Thanksgiving.

Burney and Portia McDowell, owners of McDowell's Big Fork Nursery, know that to be true.

This year, Thanksgiving falls on the last Thursday of the month, meaning there are only four weeks until Christmas. So many shoppers went out last week for their real Christmas trees.

"This past weekend was rough, I mean, we had lots of customers," Portia said Tuesday. "Thanksgiving's late this year. We had customers yesterday and have some people from Grundy County coming today."

The McDowells are retired and live near their Christmas tree farm. The couple recently started letting customers come out, find their own tree and cut it down themselves. It was a way to offset the lean times the recession brought about.

"We usually just put them in a semi truck and send them off," said Portia. "And the economy got bad, and the semi trucks quit coming, so we started letting people come and cut."

She understood the slowdown in business, and still does, as the couple now coasts into retirement.

"You can't eat a tree," she said.

Contact staff writer Alex Green at agreen@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6480.

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