Christmas Tree Growers Face Challenges Across the Nation

Dec 13, 2013  | 00:05:14  | Ep3916

America’s first commercial Christmas tree farms sprouted on the east coast more than a century ago.   But the family tradition of harvesting your own holiday flora remains strong across the country.

A few varieties of Christmas trees, like Douglas Fir and Scotch Pine dominate the market, but for the Frasier Fir, a resulting chorus of “Bah, Humbug” is trumpeting in the Tar Heel State. 

Jeff Pollard/Christmas Tree Farmer.

"There's eleven years of work. Eleven years of work - gone."

Fungal pathogens have deteriorated soil quality in North Carolina, causing one farmer to lose up to eighty percent of his crop to Phytophthora root-rot.  Frasier fir has long been a staple of the nation’s number two Christmas tree-producing state.  But once the soil is infested, “The Cadillac of Christmas Trees” is destined for the scrap heap. 

While local producers bristle, researchers at North Carolina State University and elsewhere are investigating methods to engineer more rot-resistant trees.  As a stop-gap measure, Christmas tree geneticists recommend farmers shift the source of their holiday cheer from the hills of Appalachia to the birthplace of Old Saint Nick himself.

John Frampton/ North Carolina State University

"There are a lot of nice characteristics about Turkish fir. It does make a pretty Christmas tree, but there are still a lot of things we're learning about the species."

According to the most recent Agricultural Census, North Carolina harvested more than 3 million Christmas trees in 2007.  But the nation’s industry leader, Oregon, chopped down more than twice that amount in the same time period.  And while the Beaver State produces a slightly different type of tree than that of the Appalachians, experiments with Turkish Fir date back 30 years in Oregon.  Phytophthora is seen as a threat to several classes of evergreens.

The heralded variation could be the savior of many a woeful Carolinian, but the tree comes with its own set of drawbacks.  Turkish Fir tends to bud out earlier, making it susceptible to late frosts.  And it suits the palate of a certain woodland creature whose population has exploded across the nation in recent years – deer.

John Frampton/North Carolina State University

"They'll walk by Fraser fir to snack on the Turkish fir."

 But farmers like Jeff Pollard have decided to roll the dice on the alternative conifer.

Jeff Pollard/Christmas Tree Farmer.

"Good needle retention. Good, strong limbs. Soft. A good aroma. It doesn't smell as good as a Fraser fir though, I'll tell you that. But it's close."

While awaiting root-rot resistant solutions, like genetically modified Frasier Fir, close may be good enough to ensure a Merry Christmas in North Carolina.

Meanwhile, growers in Midwestern states have their own set of hurdles cultivating the renowned tannenbaum. 

Gary Harman/Walnut Ridge Farm: “We need timely rains like fellas with corn and soybeans.”

During the drought of 2012, Walnut Ridge Farm lost 80 percent of its Christmas trees near Indianola, Iowa.  Those disastrous circumstances were documented by Iowa State University, which is conducting a five-year examination on fertilizer rates and application timing for Canaan and Frasier firs.  And while root rot hasn’t ruined the rich soil of the Hawkeye state, the buck definitely stops here.

Gary Harman/Walnut Ridge Farm: “This time of year, early part of the winter, it’s buck rub.  They take their antlers and just break the branches out of the trees, strip all the branches off the tree.  Basically marking their territory and just wanting to be ornery, I think, is part of it.”

While the Iowa deer herd has declined in recent years, the state Department of Natural Resources reports hunters have harvested over 50,000 deer this year alone.  And as males mature, they employ some distinguishing methods to make their presence known.

Gary Harman/Walnut Ridge Farm: “A buck has picked out this tree to sharpen his antlers on, or just rub on, or just wants to be mean to me and ruin one of my trees that’s about 5 plus feet tall.  He’s just taken his antlers and scraped and rubbed on the tree and peeled the bark off, broke the branches…And this tree will never make a Christmas tree.”

Growers are to able salvage some of the mistreated crop.  Wreaths and other crafts allow felled branches a second life as holiday decorations.

While deer have proven to be a persistent nuisance over the years, damage is actually down at Walnut Ridge Farm this season.  Owner Gary Harman attributes the reprieve to the crop rotation in adjacent fields he rents out to local farmers.  This year’s soybeans didn’t appear to whet the appetites of deer like grains.

Gary Harman/Walnut Ridge Farm: “They like corn better than soybeans.  They move to where the cornfields are.”

The Iowa DNR does offer limited assistance to farmers dealing with these kinds of pests, but Walnut Ridge has taken a more proactive approach.

Gary Harman/Walnut Ridge Farm: “Folks need to solve their own problem.  And you don’t need the DNR, you just need hunters that can do what they need to do and eliminate the population.”





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