December 16, 2012

Buy a locally grown Christmas tree

Richard Gast, Cornell Ag Connection

---- — As far as I’m concerned, Christmas just isn’t Christmas without a real tree. And I’m certainly not alone in that opinion. Real Christmas trees have a stately presence and a rich, fragrant aroma that awakens the senses, brings the forest into the home and warmly welcomes everyone who enters.

A beautifully decorated Christmas tree isn’t just a tradition, it’s one of the most beloved symbols of the holiday season. Families unite to set up and decorate the tree, anxiously anticipating Christmas morning, when they will gather around it once again to celebrate and open presents.

According to the most recent U.S. Census of Agriculture (2007), there are 17,367 Christmas tree farms in the United States, growing trees on 343,374 acres of land nationwide and employing more than 100,000 people full or part time. More than 12,000 of those growers operate “cut your own” farms. About 15 percent of those growers (1,154) are in New York, using 20,267 acres across the state.

The National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA) represents America’s Christmas tree professionals and promotes the use of real Christmas trees. According to NCTA statistics, Americans purchased 30.8 million real Christmas trees in 2011 compared to 27 million in 2010. Eighty-four percent of those were purchased already cut and 16 percent were chosen and harvested by the customer at “cut your own” farms. 

Thirty-one percent of already cut trees (9,548,000) were purchased at Christmas tree farms, 15 percent (4,620,000) were bought at nursery and garden centers, 16 percent (4,928,000) at big box stores like Wal-Mart and 14 percent (4,312,000) at retail lots. Thirteen percent of pre-cut trees (4,004,000) were obtained from non-profit groups such as 4-H, scouting organizations, churches etc., and 11 percent (3,388,000) came from other locations. The industry realized a $1.07 billion retail market.

In 1966, the NCTA began its tradition of having the Association Grand Champion grower present a Christmas tree to America’s First Lady for display in the Blue Room of the White House. That year, Howard Pierce of Black River Falls, Wisc., presented a tree to President Lyndon Johnson and First Lady Claudia Taylor (Lady Bird) Johnson.

This year’s Grand Champions are father and son Russell (Rusty) and Beau Estes of Peak Farms in Jefferson, N.C. The Estes family traveled to Washington to present the tree, an 18.5 foot Fraser Fir, to the President and First Lady on Nov. 23, one day after Thanksgiving. The Estes family previously won the honor of sending a tree to the White House in 2008.

Christmas trees may be seasonal, but Christmas-tree production, which integrates elements of both agricultural production and forestry, certainly is not. Year-round management and maintenance are required. However, Christmas trees can be produced on land that would be only marginally productive for most agriculture, and Christmas-tree production requires less ground cover disturbance than that needed with many agricultural crops. Christmas-tree rotations are much shorter than timber rotations and Christmas trees can be grown economically on small acreage, as well, whereas agricultural crops and timber production often requires large acreage for economical management.

Christmas-tree production is generally thought of as environmentally friendly, too. The trees are a renewable resource. Harvested trees are replaced with seedlings. In fact, to replace harvested crops and meet future demand, North American Christmas-tree farmers plant one to three seedlings for every Christmas tree harvested. And because Christmas trees are 100 percent biodegradable, they are often recycled into mulch, to be used in gardening or to prevent soil erosion.

Very few consumers know or even consider where their trees come from, and even fewer realize the challenges faced by Christmas-tree producers. Large investments, long-term commitment and lots of work are required.

There are the production costs, which include the price of seedlings and machinery such as tractors, mowers, tillers, sprayers and shearing tools. Then there’s the cost of fertilizers, pesticides and other miscellaneous items such as signs, gates and flagging.

As for the labor, Christmas trees need to be planted, sheared and harvested. And there is always the risk that nursery trees will fail or that their growth, appearance and value will be impacted by drought, heavy rain, wind, hail, ice or other environmental stress, or by disease, weed and/or insect pressure or rodent damage. Road building and maintenance may be required, as well.

What’s more, marketing can be a challenge. Markets and market trends change constantly. Prices fluctuate from year to year, and quarantines may be imposed restricting transport of trees out of state or into other counties in an effort to control or eradicate disease or insects should they be discovered.

By the way, here’s a quick recipe from Joyce King of Red Barn Christmas Tree Farm in Brainardsville for a pleasantly soothing, naturally fragrant, homemade needle potpourri. Take a handful of balsam and a shaker of allspice. Mix the two together and simmer the blend on your cook stove, wood stove or in your favorite potpourri burner.

Support our local Christmas tree growers. Celebrate the holiday with a fresh-cut, locally grown Christmas tree and make choosing, setting up and decorating that perfect tree a fun family event. Your children will love it, they’ll love you for it, and you’ll be creating memories that will last a lifetime.

And have a very merry Christmas!

Richard L. Gast, Extension program educator II, Horticulture, Natural Resources, Energy Agriculture programs assistant, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Franklin County, 355 West Main St., Suite 150, Malone, 12953. Call 483-7403, fax 483-6214 or email