A freshly cut Christmas tree brings the magic of the outdoors inside. The experience of driving out to a local tree farm, choosing the perfect tree, and seeing it cut on the spot is a cherished holiday tradition in the mountains.
For many farmers in Western North Carolina, that bucolic experience is also an important piece of their business. The North Carolina Christmas tree industry is ranked second in the nation in number of trees harvested. According to the most recent census of agriculture, there are more than 1,300 Christmas tree farms in the state. Some farms invite the public to choose their own tree from the field. Other North Carolina farms ship their trees throughout the country.
Many of these farms are nestled in the mountains of Western North Carolina, and so is much of the research that supports the industry. Jeff Owen is a Christmas tree extension specialist who works for the College of Natural Resources at NC State University. He researches the challenges that Christmas tree growers face, like keeping the trees that travel fresh during their long journey.
“We’ve looked at everything from needle retention to trunk cracks that can be a minor problem with Frasier fir,” he says. “Minimizing stress really is the key thing. So when the tree is on the farm or on a retail lot, minimizing exposure to wind and full sun, particularly as you move further south into the Gulf Coast in Florida, and trying to minimize excessive temperatures [is important]. So our mantra is keep it cool, keep it dark, keep it moist.”
For Owen, this research is a hands-on job. October through Christmas is his busy season, and some days you’ll find him with both hands on the wheel, hauling a trailer full of Christmas trees down to South Carolina. The goal is to put the trees in stressful situations, like higher temperatures, to see if the treatments to improve freshness are working.
“We harvested trees last week for a ethylene blocker study. Ethylene blockers block certain sites in foliage or on an apples, for instance, and once those are blocked, you reduce the ripening or the aging of produce. That’s true for an apple, a sweet potato, or a Christmas tree,” he says. “We’ve done some preliminary tests in previous years and seen some benefit.”
Owen also watches fluctuations in the Christmas tree market. For about six years, during the recession of 2008, there was an oversupply of Christmas trees in the state. WIth demand down, farmers planted fewer trees.
“Now we are in the consequences of the oversupply. Growers stopped planting as many trees during an oversupply and then almost guaranteed a few years later you’re in an undersupply,” he says.
It takes about ten years to grow a Christmas tree in the field, so now there are fewer mature trees to harvest. “As we move into a shorter supply in 2017 prices are up which is a good thing but supplies are a little bit limited and growers are turning customers away,” he says.
Owen says it’s an especially good idea to get a tree early this year. “As we move closer to Christmas, some retail lots and some fields of trees on choose and cut farms are going to be picked over. Whether it’s a lot or a field on a farm, you can’t just bring more trees in if they’re not there to bring in, so getting your tree a little earlier this year probably would be a good thing,” he advises.
Many Christmas tree farms are seeing profits rise, but Owen says it’s not the only reason farmers grow the trees.
“A lot of them love where they get to work and having a mountaintop experience every day. They get to grow a beautiful crop and get to meet some interesting people. You know, a lot of them take great joy in all different aspects of farming and production and seeing land being put to good use. We see a lot of signs of wildlife in the field and growers are proud to be stewards of mountain land,” he says.
See that mountain land up close during a trip to a local tree farm. There are several “choose and cut” farms that encourage people to pick out their own tree from the field. Some farms offer sleigh rides, hot chocolate, and activities for kids for a full winter wonderland experience.
Find local Christmas tree farms in ASAP’s Local Food Guide: www.appalachiangrown.org
Aired: December 11, 2018