Many in South Jersey spent the morning of Black Friday busting down department store doors for a chance at a discounted plasma TV, but Cape May resident Parker Smith kept it traditional.

Smith and his family, as they have for several years, did their shopping in the Petersburg section of Upper Township at Littleworth Christmas Tree Farm, which was doing brisk business. Black Friday marked the de facto start of the season for New Jersey’s Christmas tree growers, who will sell about 80,000 trees from now through Christmas, said Lynne Richmond, spokeswoman for the state Department of Agriculture.

Smith, who knows Littleworth owner and former fish and game officer Karl Yunghans from his years as an attorney with the Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office, said Yunghans knows his family’s taste so well that the trip is almost a formality.

“As soon as I get out of the car, Karl says, ‘I’ve got your tree over here,’” said Smith, who brought home a 10-foot Canaan fir. “He knows exactly what we like.”

Christmas trees have been an agricultural staple in New Jersey since 1901, when Mercer County farmer W.V. McGalliard planted 25,000 Norway spruces outside Trenton, creating what is believed to be the first such farm in the United States. A century later, New Jersey is still among the top-ranked producers in an industry in which Americans spent more than $1 billion last year, according to a 2012 market survey by the National Christmas Tree Association. New Jersey was 15th in the nation in total trees harvested, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2007 census, the most recent one available. Census data for the 2012 season will be released in February.

This year, the state’s growers will benefit from a push by Gov. Chris Christie, who proclaimed Dec. 2 as New Jersey Grown Christmas Tree Day, with the hopes of encouraging residents to support their local farmers.

It seems residents need little encouragement, though. While many industries have suffered in the ongoing recession, New Jersey Christmas Tree Growers’ Association Executive Secretary Donna Cole said many businesses she knows have flourished, including her own.

“A lot of growers, and us in particular, we do better every year,” said Cole, who owns a farm in Hunterdon County. “We’re busier every year, and most of the people I talk to are, too.”

Trees run $7 a foot at Littleworth, which sells about 300 in a given season, Yunghans said. About 100 of these are choose-and-cut, while the rest Yunghans trucks up from North Carolina. Yunghans draws a distinction between his cut trees, which are cut fresh and brought up in early December, and those on tree lots, many of which he said were felled in October or early November.

Littleworth is just a two-minute drive from Eisele’s Tree Farm, also in Petersburg. While operating in such close proximity would make for competition in other industries, owner Bill Eisele said growers tended to support one another.

“If somebody can’t find a tree they like here, I send them over there rather than send them to get an artificial tree or go to Home Depot or one of those places that cut them three, four weeks ago,” said Eisele, who sells his trees for $6.25 a foot, plus tax.

Americans bought 24.5 million live trees last year, according to the National Christmas Tree Association. This is a drop of about 6 million from the previous year. About 11 million artificial trees were sold in 2012.

While putting up an artificial tree is certainly easier than picking a fresh one, for those who make it a tradition of getting a live tree, there’s no substitute.

Seaville resident Jenny Polo and her family grabbed breakfast at Dino’s Diner early on Black Friday before driving to Littleworth to pick their tree. They’ve done it for years and will do it again, she said, because it’s a holiday experience like nothing else.

“It’s just better when it’s cold,” she said. “It’s bundling up and getting everybody out here, running through the trees and touching them. It’s sensory.”

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More than 30 years’ experience reporting and editing for newspapers and magazines in Illinois, Colorado, Texas and New Jersey and 1985 winner of the Texas Daily Newspaper Association’s John Murphy Award for copy editing.