By Jaime North

The Daily Item

MIFFLINBURG — There may be no need to wait for Black Friday for a hint of how this holiday shopping season will go.

A clue might be found in Mifflinburg, ground zero in the Christmas tree world, site of what local organizers say is the largest wholesale Christmas tree sale in the U.S.

The auctioneer's gavel will drop today.

Again and again.

On Monday, despite bleak forecasts for retail shopping, auction officials said their business prospects look good.

Neil Courtney, manager of Buffalo Valley Produce Auction, says the shaky economy appears to have had little impact on the annual auction, which attracts wholesale sellers from as far away as North Carolina and buyers from as far as Connecticut.

This year's event will feature the highest number of trees ever.

"We will have about 50,000 trees go for upwards of $250,000," Courtney said. "Last year, we had around 40,000 trees. Just think, this all started with 300 trees 20 years ago."

Courtney said the auction grew as word spread throughout the tree industry, which led it to grow consistently to where it now involves more than 50 wholesale sellers and 200 buyers.

The idea for the auction was simple, Courtney said.

"We felt that we had a good market here with a lot of tree growers in the area, as well as many retailers and independent marketers," Courtney said. "By drawing in wholesale sellers from all over, it gave us a great opportunity to provide a wide selection to our locals."

The wide selection is what has drawn Devlen Mackey, of Belvidere, N.J., to the auction for the past five years. Mackey said he relies on the auction to supply his Christmas tree and wreath stand.

"They definitely have the best selection in our market," Mackey said. "They just have more products, which gives me more to choose from."

Although he is cutting back about 20 percent due to the sluggish economy, Mackey said the auction also enables him to keep his operating costs within reason.

"These wreaths will be out for sale by (today), and I'll come back for some trees so I have them ready for Wednesday," Mackey said. "Thanksgiving is the biggest weekend for me, so I need to have my stock ready.

"Weekends this year is where the money is. You get hardly any money Monday through Friday. Money is tight, of course, but you really get some deals here, so this place actually helps."

Courtney said he thinks the economy will influence more families to stay home for the holidays this year, which would result in more people searching for Christmas trees.

"I feel very certain that there will be a lot of old-fashioned Christmas celebrations this year," Courtney said. "More people figure to be staying home, so for the $40 they will save on gas, they will use on a tree. As you can see, the business has been going great. We have 10,000 more trees this year than last and have plenty more wreaths and wreath-roping. "

Courtney said wreaths went for between $4 to $15 on average with the largest of the day going for $175, while wreath-roping went for $8 to $12. Up to $150,000 worth of wreaths and wreath-roping were sold Monday, according to Courtney.

The big ticket items come today with all types of Christmas trees up for bid. According to Courtney, the price of a tree depends on the quality and its size, which can range from 2 feet to 15 feet.

"You will see trees for as low as $5 and up to $50," Courtney said. "Fraser, which we get from North Carolina, is the granddaddy of them all. It has soft needles and probably the best fragrance. You will see lot of them going."

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