Buy local Christmas trees — support local growers

Christmas tree plantation (Photo provided by Elizabeth Lamb, senior extension associate —Ornamentals Program; New York State Integrated Pest Management)

Christmas trees can be seen everywhere during the holiday season. And, because of this, we often think of Christmas tree farming as a seasonal business, which it certainly isn’t. To be successful, year-round management and maintenance are needed. And the work is often labor-intensive, and/or needing to be completed under adverse weather conditions.

When starting out, Christmas tree farmers must plan ahead and be able to invest a minimum of six to 10 years of hard work and money in their business enterprise before any financial return is realized. Startup operations include soil preparation and planting of new seedlings. Additionally, there’s shearing, weed control, pest scouting and control, fertilizing and harvesting. If these activities are not properly carried out, trees are frequently of lesser quality and cannot be sold at premium prices. Sometimes they can’t be sold at all. Then there’s marketing and selling.

On the other hand, Christmas tree production, which integrates elements of both agricultural production and forestry, requires less groundcover-disturbance than that needed with many agricultural crops. And Christmas trees can be produced on land that would be only marginally productive for most agricultural crops or that otherwise couldn’t be used to grow crops at all. Because of this, and the fact that North American Christmas tree farmers replace harvested crops to meet future demand by planting one to three seedlings the following spring for every Christmas tree harvested, Christmas tree production is generally thought of as environmentally friendly. The trees are truly a renewable and recyclable resource. They’re 100 percent biodegradable and are often recycled into mulch to be used in gardening or to prevent soil erosion. And they’re raised on plantations, not clear-cut from a forest. What’s more, Christmas tree rotations are much shorter than timber-harvest rotations. And Christmas trees can be grown economically on small acreage, unlike most agricultural crops or timber, which often require large acreage for economical management.

According to the National Christmas Tree Association, Christmas trees are grown in all 50 American states and Canada (80 percent of artificial trees worldwide are manufactured in China) with close to 15,000 farms, with about 350,000 acres (much of it preserving green space) in production in the U.S. NCTA further states that Americans spent more than $2 billion on 27.4 million natural Christmas trees last year, with an average retail selling price of $74.70. Of those, 77 percent were pre-cut, 23 percent were cut-your-own.

Many factors can influence the annual total number of trees purchased, including how many trees are available for harvest, harvest conditions, weather conditions, the number of consumers traveling for the holidays, the number of retail outlets offering trees for sale –even the number of days between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Very few consumers even consider the challenges faced by our Christmas tree-producing neighbors. Production costs include the price of seedlings, machinery (i.e. tractors, mowers, tillers, sprayers shearing tools), fertilizers, pesticides and other miscellaneous items, such as signs, gates and flagging. And there’s always the risk that nursery trees will fail or that their growth, appearance, and/or value will be profoundly 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, markets and market trends change constantly. Prices fluctuate from year to year. And, in an effort to control or eradicate disease or insects, should they be discovered, quarantines may be imposed restricting transport of trees out of state or into other counties.

Some Christmas tree growers are businessmen. Some are hobbyists. They’ll often have very different goals and approaches. While a businessman might elect to grow a single tree species — the one that will provide the greatest return — an enthusiastic hobbyist might select a favorite variety or several varieties of trees, even with the knowledge that the overall return on his or her investment will not be as great.

For many private landowners, the decision to grow Christmas trees will be just one part of an overall land use plan. That plan may be designed to protect, preserve and improve aesthetic beauty and wildlife habitat. It may include agricultural enterprises, such as apple orchards, U-Pick berries, fresh vegetables, or forage crops. And it may also encompass other recreational and entrepreneurial opportunities. a

Please support our local Christmas tree growers. Celebrate the holiday with a real, 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.