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For some modern families, ordering online is replacing the cold night search for the perfect fir

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By Jenn Abelson
Globe Staff / December 4, 2010

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Kathy Lunetta remembers the dreary winter day she put a stop to the family tradition of hunting for the perfect Christmas tree.

“We couldn’t find a tree we liked. It was so stressful,’’ recalled Lunetta, a 43-year-old professor at Boston University, of the long drive to a muddy farm in the western suburbs. “I know this is supposed to be an all-American experience. But it was cold and wet and disgusting.’’

Now, the tree comes to Lunetta. A fresh-cut 7-foot-tall balsam fir that she had ordered online arrived on Thursday, delivered by FedEx to her front door in Brookline. No fuss, no muss.

For Christmas tree farmers and advocates of fresh-cut firs, online customers like Lunetta may represent their last great hope to reverse a wilting tradition. During the last two decades, fake firs and surrogate spruces — with their pre-lit, nonshedding needles — have taken over more than half of the nation’s living rooms.

Farmers are now embracing the Internet and teaming up for the first time this holiday season with Target and Amazon.com to sell real Christmas trees online. The growers are also taking on new high-tech tasks to tout the virtues of fresh-cut firs, such as shooting videos and uploading footage of live balsams and Frasers to YouTube. It’s an acknowledgement that Americans’ love for convenience may be trumping the traditional tree farm trip that made taking home a real tannenbaum so memorable.

“What we’d really like is for people to go out to the farm and have the experience of the tree. But this is the next best thing,’’ said Nigel Manley, director of The Rocks Estate, a 1,400-acre New Hampshire reserve where Lunetta ordered her annual Christmas fir. “Oddly enough, the Internet has really helped connect these people who may have just given up on a fresh-cut tree altogether.’’

Target is wasting no time to win converts. This week the mass discounter offered a 10 percent sale on live tree orders, along with free shipping. “The opportunity to purchase your Christmas tree at Target.com is one way that Target is making holiday shopping simpler than ever,’’ explained chain spokeswoman Morgan O’Murray.

It used to be that tree growers would sell firs at their farms and also to wholesalers who set up tree lots in cities and suburbs around the country. But as orders slowed in recent years, farmers like Dugald Kell Jr. turned to the Internet to find more customers for his family business, Sunrise County Evergreens in Milbridge, Maine.

Today, Kell not only sells trees on his own site, wreath.com, but also hawks them on Amazon.com. Sunrise also joined the social networking world via Facebook this fall featuring cheeky posts such as: “If you lived in a tall building, wouldn’t you like a green tree in a brown box delivered in a brown truck?’’

Online sales, which make up 20 percent of Kell’s business, are up 4 percent this holiday season.

“People are using the Internet as their first choice for looking for a product,’’ Kell said. “If the only thing they can find is artificial trees, that’s what they’ll buy.’’

Surfing the Web was the way Michelle Toe kicked her fake tree habit. Toe, a 25-year-old medical school student in the Bronx, was intent on getting a real tree and setting it up the day after Thanksgiving. When she couldn’t find an affordable tree from local growers, a quick online search connected her with The Rocks Estate in Bethlehem, N.H.

Toe ordered the 7-foot balsam fir for about $40 (plus $30 for shipping), and it arrived at her doorstep just three days later. “It was really easy,’’ she said. “I just really wanted a nice-looking tree — something that is big and full and smells good.’’

At The Rocks Estate’s website, customers can choose from two types of trees: balsam firs (long aromatic needles) or the Fraser firs (shorter blue-green needles). The 7-foot trees cost between $60 and $100 — with shipping typically accounting for half the price.

Within 24 hours of harvesting, the firs are packaged in cardboard boxes that can withstand 250 pounds of pressure. UPS or FedEx delivers them days later and it takes about another day for the trees to fully relax their branches.

But to some live tree devotees, the high-tech delivery seems silly.

“We like to hold up the tree and make sure it is full and round,’’ said Bill Leak, who buys a fir from a neighborhood tree lot in Plymouth. “You can’t do that online.’’

For growers, the Web has forced them to gain new skills.

So it was that Jesse Albuquerque found himself recently scurrying across The Rocks Estate’s 60-acre Christmas tree farm with a growling gas chainsaw in one hand and a Flip video camera in the other.

His mission: to capture the essence of a Yuletide tradition from harvest to its final destination in Rick Dungey’s living room in St. Louis. The resulting video would be uploaded to YouTube and the Rocks’ website to help entice shoppers to buy a live Christmas tree.

“There are a lot of people that have the perception that it’s such a pain to get a tree or a hassle to set up,’’ said Dungey, a spokesman for trade group National Christmas Tree Association. “It drives me crazy.’’

The Rocks Estate tries in all of its videos to tap into consumers’ growing interest in local farms by showing off the expansive grounds nestled in the heart of the White Mountains and the burnt-red farmhouse that sits on Christmas Lane.

The online strategy appears to be working. In addition to a 15 percent jump in Internet sales this year, The Rocks Estate has also attracted new customers who have viewed the videos and showed up to the farm with their perfect tree already picked out.

“I never thought I’d be doing this,’’ said Albuquerque, 20, a farm worker at The Rocks Estate, who dons an evergreen-colored baseball cap emblazoned with the words: “I’m a Real Christmas Tree Grower and I’m Proud of It.’’

Smiling meekly, Albuquerque added: “Now it’s just a new part of the job.’’

Jenn Abelson can be reached at abelson@globe.com.