Picture the perfect Christmas tree. It’s tall and cone-shaped, has strong boughs for hanging ornaments, its needles stay on the tree for weeks after it’s harvested, and it smells divine. This ideal Christmas tree is likely a Fraser fir.
Fraser fir trees grow naturally at elevations above 4,500 feet and thrive in the Southern Appalachian mountains from southwest Virginia through Western North Carolina. In 1950, the first commercial cutting of Fraser fir was made on Roan Mountain, and over the next several decades Christmas tree farming became popular and profitable in North Carolina.
“For those mountain counties, it’s a big business. There are several counties where Christmas trees are the number one agricultural commodity,” says Jeff Owen, a N.C. Cooperative Extension Area Extension Specialist.
Christmas trees are his specialty and December is his busy season. He’s on the road quite a bit conducting Christmas tree research and checking in on tree farmers throughout the region. He’s known many of them for over 30 years. Through multi-year research projects, he helps growers adapt their weed management and pruning practices, manage deer and pests, and adopt new ways of keeping trees fresh after harvest.
These kinds of efforts are paying off. North Carolina is second in the nation in terms of the number of Christmas trees sold, with nearly six million trees harvested annually. There are about 850 growers in the state, and many of the farmers that Jeff works with are building both a business and a legacy.
“All our farms are family farms. We’ve got big farms and small farms. The vast majority of our growers have plans to bring their children, or grandchildren, or great-grandchildren into the business. They have a goal of stewardship, and in many cases, leaving the land in better condition than when they started,” Jeff says.
In order to ensure the longevity of their tree farms for future generations, many growers look for ways to protect their soil.
“Oftentimes you’ll drive past a Christmas tree farm and the trees are surrounded by white clover and other wildflowers through most of the growing season. It helps hold the mountain side together and can provide free nitrogen and has a lot of additional benefits and actually has been one of the cheapest ways for growers to manage weeds,” he says.
Providing a healthy habitat for the trees is essential because it can take over a decade for a tree to reach maturity.
“You look at a tree and it certainly is a thing of beauty and a way for a family to bring in a piece of nature into their home, but a farmer has been working toward the goal of providing that Christmas tree, in most cases 10 or more years, depending on the size of the tree,” he says.
Finding and retaining skilled labor is a significant issue for larger tree farms. Here in the mountains, Jeff says local growers often have the same crew for decades.
“It’s a farming product that requires a lot of skill on the part of the growers and a lot of tenacity. If you think about the trees that have been harvested this year, some of the youngest trees were probably planted at the end of the first Obama administration,” he says.
You might hear North Carolina Christmas tree farmers and experts mark time by presidential terms. That’s because a North Carolina Fraser Fir has been displayed in the White House more than a dozen times since 1966. While your holiday decor might not be as elaborate as the White House, Jeff has some advice for keeping your tree fresh, like having a tree stand with a large water reservoir set up before you head out for a tree.
“Whether you buy your Christmas tree on a farm, or a retail lot, or go to the big box store and pick up a North Carolina Fraizer Fir there, it represents a cultural tradition that’s been going on for hundreds of years and helps families tap into some very meaningful aspects of the holiday season,” he says.
Find local farms where you can choose and cut your own Christmas tree and other locations where North Carolina trees are available in ASAP’s Local Food Guide: www.appalachiangrown.org
Aired: December 7, 2020