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Support local agriculture

December 12, 2012
By Richard Gast , Franklin County Cornell Cooperative Extension

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 that 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, utilizing 20,267 acres across the state.

The National Christmas Tree Association 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 nearly 31 million trees were purchased already cut and 16 percent were chosen and harvested by the customer at "cut your own" Christmas tree 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 time-honored 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, Wisconsin, 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, D.C., to present the 2012 White House Blue Room Christmas Tree, an 18.5 feet tall 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 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, 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.

Some Christmas tree growers are businessmen. Some are hobbyists. They will 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 include other agricultural enterprises, such as apple orchards, U-Pick berries, fresh vegetables or forage crops. It may be designed to protect, preserve and improve aesthetic beauty and wildlife habitat. And it may also encompass other recreational and entrepreneurial opportunities.

One well known Franklin County "choose and cut" tree farm is the Red Barn Christmas Tree Farm, owned and operated by Joyce and Richard King. The farm is located on the Brainardsville Road, approximately 9 miles east of Malone and 2 miles west of the hamlet of Brainardsville.

In their more than 50 years in the Christmas tree business, the King family has harvested, transplanted and cared for about 100,000 balsam fir Christmas trees; all of those trees sheared by hand. At this time, Red Barn Farm has several thousand trees growing in rotation on a total of about 20 to 25 acres of land. Red Barn Christmas Tree Farm has a very nice selection of trees that range in size from small to about 20 feet tall. And you can choose and cut your own. Bring your bow saw or borrow one at the farm, and either cut down the tree yourself, or have it done for you while you watch.

The Kings recently hosted an Extension Christmas Tree Farming Field Meeting and Workshop, at which more than 30 people, experienced Christmas tree growers and those considering getting started, took advantage of an opportunity to look at stands of production trees in different stages of development, to speak with experienced growers and to ask questions of both the growers and Cornell Integrated Pest Management specialist Betsy Lamb. Among the topics discussed were site selection, obtaining and caring for planting stock, cultural practices (shaping and shearing), insects and diseases, and marketing.

By the way, here's a quick, simple recipe from Mrs. King for a pleasantly soothing, naturally fragrant, homemade needle potpourri. Just 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. Enjoy!

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.

And have a very merry Christmas!



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