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A four-year campaign to launch an industry-funded Christmas tree promotion program is apparently back on track to implementation. “I expect it to move forward sometime in the new year,” Jim Brownlee, director of public affairs for the Agricultural Marketing Services of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, told The Produce News on Nov. 20.

The USDA announced approval of the program on Nov. 8, 2011, but a conservative backlash led 24 hours later to an indefinite delay in the program (see “Christmas tree promotional program delayed following skirmishes in D.C.,” The Produce News, Dec. 12, 2011, page 105).

The chief Grinch in this setback to the Christmas tree program was David S. Addington, former legal counsel and chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney. Mr. Addington, now at the conservative Heritage Foundation, attacked the check-off program as a tax, prompting the White House to deny that it was taxing Christmas trees and announce it was nonetheless delaying the program.

The Christmas tree program is similar to 38 other agricultural promotion and marketing orders authorized by both Democratic and Republican administrations dating back to 1936. These include the dairy industry “Got Milk?” campaign and the beef producers’ “Beef: It’s what’s for Dinner.” The Christmas tree program would be funded by a 15-cent check-off for each tree sold by growers who sell more than 500 trees, and would raise an estimated $2 million a year.

Industry reaction to Mr. Addington’s assault was swift and strong. “After the program was mistakenly called ‘a tax on Christmas trees,’ many news outlets nationwide then began reporting this inaccuracy without comment from the industry or the USDA,” said Rick Dungey, public relations manager of the National Christmas Tree Association. “The program is not expected to have any impact on the price consumers pay for their Christmas trees,” he added.

Citing the need for the program, the association stated that fresh-cut Christmas tree sales declined from $37 million in 1991 to $31 million in 2007. Sales of artificial trees nearly doubled to 17.4 million between 2003 and 2007.

The USDA would administer the Christmas tree marketing program, but would be reimbursed for all costs. The program would be run by a board of domestic growers and one importer, and after three years, growers and importers would vote on whether to continue the program. The National Christmas Tree Association submitted the request for the program during the George W. Bush administration.