Maryland Christmas tree farmers are combining savvy marketing with a bit of holiday cheer this year by donating some of their Christmas trees to U.S. military bases.

Seven Maryland tree farmers participated in Trees for Troops, a donation program run by the National Christmas Tree Association's charitable offshoot, The Christmas Spirit Foundation.

Trees from 15 states will be distributed to Fort Benning, Ga.; Fort Bragg, N.C.; Fort Campbell, Ky.; Fort Lewis, Wash., and Camp Pendleton, Calif. FedEx is picking up and delivering the plants along three routes -- East Coast, West Coast and Midwest -- by Dec. 9. A shipment of trees from Ohio tree farmers went to overseas military bases in mid-November.

The tractor trailer arrived at Mayne Tree Farm in Buckeystown Dec. 1, where Mehrl Franklin Mayne, 51, began tree farming in 1966, first working with his father and eventually taking over the family business a few years ago. Along the way, the farm added asparagus, sweet corn and other produce.

Mayne, who has a son-in-law in the Navy, donated six trees. He said it's the least he can do.

"Somebody's got to do that job and it's a little thank you from us, from the tree grower," Mayne said.

And the extra publicity doesn't hurt either.

While artificial tree sales have yet to surpass those of real trees, the number of households buying fake trees has risen in recent years, dipping into profits for tree farmers.

According to a consumer survey by the NCTA, 9 million households bought fake trees last year, the first decline in two years, and 27 million households bought real trees. In previous years, real tree sales declined.

A Christmas tree at most Maryland farms costs about $35, said Bill Underwood, who grows trees in Maryland and North Carolina. A nice Fraser fir, among the most popular, can go for about $60.

Underwood helped coordinate Maryland farmers' participation. He had hoped to get about 100 trees from Maryland farmers, but only 47 trees were loaded onto the FedEx truck Thursday at the Buckeystown farm.

The goal is to collect about 3,000 trees from farmers nationwide, but the logistics of packing and moving 7-foot-and-up trees, Underwood said, made it hard for some Maryland farmers to participate because they are scattered across the state.

"When you get a choose n' cut grower that probably doesn't have anything to haul on," he said, "it creates some problems." In Maryland, most Christmas tree farmers are dependent upon consumers to drive to their farms.

Farmers began dropping off trees at his 170-acre farm in November, Mayne said. His farm was picked because it is centrally located near Interstate 270 in Frederick County.

About 750 trees will be unloaded at Fort Bragg in North Carolina on Dec. 6.

Michael Deveault, executive officer for Morale, Welfare and Recreation at the base, said each unit will distribute tickets to families unable to afford trees.

"It's just another thing they wouldn't have to purchase for Christmas," he said.

Another load will be picked up in North Carolina before the truck travels to South Carolina and Georgia to pick up more trees and deliver those to Fort Benning.

Ryan Furby, a FedEx spokesman, said the company has not calculated the cost of transporting the trees.

Public relations aside, Underwood said the tree donations are a way to say thanks to soldiers and their families.

"It makes them feel they're wanted and appreciated for what they're doing."

Capital News Service contributed to this story.