Almost all the Christmas tree crops in the U.S. – 99 percent, according to Oregon State University’s extension service – are grown using some kind of chemical inputs.
The noble firs from Trillium Farm in Eagle Creek, Ore., are among the remaining one percent.
Roger and Kathy Fantz have been growing organic Christmas trees at Trillium Farm for 23 years, despite being told it couldn’t be done.
“No one tells me what I can’t do,” said Cathy Fantz.
The couple had do a lot of their own research and find a market for their unusual product.
“I started looking for information on organics, and there was nothing on Christmas trees,” Cathy said. “There was no one else doing what we were doing. Everything we did we had to find our own way.”
“Nobody cared that they were organic”
There was a lot of trial and error, and adapting of organic gardening techniques. And in the end, they wound up driving their trees down to California in a horse trailer. In a state that grows more than 30 percent of the nation’s Christmas trees, Cathy said, it was tough to find a market that wasn’t already flooded with other people’s trees.
“We did initially sell them wholesale, but nobody cared that they were organic,” she said. “They don’t meet the industry standard for a tightly sheared, conical tree. We prefer the natural look. They look more like a natural tree in a forest than the cone-shaped tree you see in the field.”
Their farm looks a lot different from other Christmas tree farms, too.
“Because we don’t use any herbicides, the grass grows underneath the trees,” said Cathy. “The competing grass makes them weaker, so we cut up the bottom whirl a little deeper. That means they have a longer stump for the stand.”
They only grow noble firs because they’re more disease and pest resistant than other species. They mow two or three times a year to control competing plants and weeds.
“We like critters to be in here eating other critters,” she said. “The bad news is it’s also a great place for mice to hide. In the beginning, they would kill a lot of our little trees – they’d girdle them.”
They never clear their field. They plant new trees where they’ve harvested. And they don’t shear the trees as much as other growers.
The farm started out with around 3,000 trees on 3 acres. For awhile, the Fantz’s were selling 700 wholesale trees from that property. But for the past four years they’ve make the same money delivering 150 trees themselves to a small garden center in Northern California.
Searching for the “Charlie Brown” tree
Meanwhile, in southeast Portland, Andrew Kurkinen has been scouring local Christmas tree farms for organic – or what he calls “wild” or “Charlie Brown” – trees to sell on his lot. I spotted him at the corner of SE 39th and Belmont holding a sign between two very different-looking trees. One was “wild” and one was “sheared.” K Brothers lot sells both, he said, but one is much harder to find than the other.
“Last year I called around to 20 different farms looking for these,” he said, pointing to the wild Nordmann tree. “They were considered junk trees by the farmer. I had to haul them out by hand myself. It cost me a lot to bring them in.”
Kurkinen said the wild tree was grown without any chemical sprays and shaped with a machete. He had 50 of them in his lot last year and sold out in three days; this year he has 200.
A “wild” tree could look different simply because it hasn’t been sheared, said OSU Christmas tree specialist Chal Landgren. It could mean it was grown on less productive land where it grew more slowly than other Christmas trees, so it didn’t need to be sheared to look like a traditional Christmas tree.
“On most sites, and in most situations, the trees will grow too fast – up to 3 feet a year,” said Landgren. “So the grower trims the leader and sides down. That way it doesn’t get too tall or too sparse too quickly. On a site that’s not very productive, where a tree isn’t growing two or three feet a year, you can grow what looks like an unsheared tree.”
Kurkinen said it wasn’t the organic growing practices that drew people to the wild tree.
“They all say ‘That’s what we used to have when I was a kid,’ he said. “They like it because it’s old fashioned, the way it used to be.”
The industry standard
At this point I felt like I wanted to know how 99 percent of fresh-cut Christmas trees come to be. Here’s a summary based on an interview with Oregon State University Christmas tree specialist Mike Bondi:
- Growers find trees that naturally occur in the forest that have the color of foliage and arrangement of branches people like and that will keep for awhile after they’re cut.
- The seeds are grown in a nursery for a couple years before they’re planted and grown much like a crop of corn or soybeans – only longer. They grow for 5 to 10 years depending on the species and grower.
- For the first few years, Bondi said, weed control is critical. Competing vegetation can “rob the tree of moisture” and stunt its growth. Tilling and herbicides are the two common ways of wiping out weed competition.
- Each species of tree has its own unique vulnerabilities to insects and disease. Growers use pesticides, herbicides and fungicides accordingly in applications that are needed once a year but not every year. Bondi said the chemicals are applied sparingly for both environmental and financial reasons, and “they are washed off in rainfall or absorbed into the tree long before the tree is harvested.”
- The lower limbs are cut off and the branches are sheared and tipped with knives and hand-pruners as the tree grows.
- Once the trees are ready to go and the market and sales are done, the trees are cut around mid-November.
- Bigger farms use helicopters to move the trees quickly “because we only have a few weeks to move the majority of trees, and it’s so rainy and muddy in the Northwest that taking a tractor and driving across the land really is not a good for the land,” said Bondi.
- Only 1 percent of the country’s Christmas trees crops are organic, Bondi said. “There are some growers who are interested in growing trees organically, but I’ve never seen organic trees look good enough to sell in a typical marketplace. It’s a wonderful idea, but in the Northwest you’ve got to appreciate the fact that you can’t have bare ground for more than five minutes and something wants to grow there.”
- There are two environmental certifications for Christmas trees: One from the Coalition for Environmentally Conscious Growers and one just launched this year called the Socially and Environmentally Responsible Farms. Neither requires growers to use organic practices.