The Value of Christmas Trees

"...there is no reason why the joy associated with the Christmas evergreen may not be a means of arousing in the minds of children an appreciation of the beauty and usefulness of trees; and keen appreciation of the beauty and usefulness of trees is a long stop toward the will to plant and care for them (Arthur Sowder, US Forest Service, 1949)."

Monday, February 1, 2010

Organic Christmas Tree Project

Photo caption: The Extension organic site in June, 2009, a little more than a year after planting.

SUMMARY: In 2008, an extension organic Christmas tree project was started in Alleghany County. Growth has not been as good as normally produced trees at the same site, and costs are higher. It cost $1.50 per tree in materials and labor to put ground cloth around these trees at planting to reduce weed competition. It takes about 8 times as long each year for weed control (weed eater vs. applying low rates of Roundup). The tree terminals in the organic site are about 1/2 as long.

There has been interest in growing Fraser fir for Christmas trees organically for many years in western North Carolina. To my knowledge, there are 2 or 3 certified organic Christmas tree growers in NC that harvest a few hundred to a few thousand every year.

Back in the mid-1990's, several of us in extension did surveys of customers to determine if there was a market for organic Christmas trees. I went to a couple of choose and cut farms (Doug Hundley helped me at the one in Avery County), and Jeff Owen, the area extension specialist with Christmas trees went to an organic grocery store in the Asheville area.

What we found at that time didn't indicate a great demand for organic Christmas trees. Many of the people that Jeff interviewed that were buying organic food either didn't celebrate Christmas or they didn't use Christmas trees. People that I interviewed were interested in integrated pest management as a way of reducing pesticide use, but they were primarily wanted to have a pretty tree at a reasonable price. They didn't indicate that they would pay more for an organic Christmas tree.

However, in the past 15 years, this may have changed as more people are buying organic products. "Green" is definitely in and many people are convinced that organic production is the most environmentally friendly way of producing any crop. I myself prefer organic bananas, carrots and tomatoes because they haven't been loaded down with nitrogen, and therefore, in my opinion, they taste better.

Fraser fir, being a somewhat slow growing and finicky plant, doesn't lend itself to easy organic production. Pest control is really no problem. Even though there are several introduced pests that aren't easy to control (namely the balsam woolly adelgid and elongate hemlock scale) practically all pests can be kept at bay with horticultural oil. And now that there is Saf-T-Side oil without the issues of oil separating out and burning foliage, pest control shouldn't be a problem.

The big problem is weed control. Historically, this has always been the biggest issue with Christmas tree production. Weeds, and especially grasses, will always outgrow conifers. After all, that's why Fraser fir is found at the highest elevations -- because they can grow there and other plants don't. In fact, the top of Mount Mitchell was never logged -- not because Govenor Craig made it a state park and therefore saved it, but because the very top of the mountain was almost entirely Fraser fir. The economically important red spruce was found at slightly lower elevations.

Using low rates of Roundup not only stunts weeds to allow trees to grow, it shifts the ground covers away from grasses to clovers and other low-growing perennials. These living ground covers then become weed control, so that harder to control weeds like poke and ragweed can't get a foothold. That is impossible to reproduce organically without disturbing the soil.

In 2008, several of us started an extension organic project at the farm of one of our county agents, Della Deal. She had a small farm that had just been set in Fraser fir, that she was willing to donate for the project. Also involved were myself, Jeff Owen, Bryan Davis, and Richard Boylan, the alternative agriculture agent in Ashe and Watauga Counties. My goal was to see how much it would cost us to grow a pretty organic Fraser fir Christmas tree. I wasn't interested in an experiment looking at different options for fertility and ground cover management. I wanted to use our best guess as to what would work.

To control weeds, we used an 18 inch square piece of ground cloth that was placed around each tree and secured to the soil with staples, keeping the weeds from growing right up against the tree. Della's field was about 1 acre in size, and we initially had every intention of doing the whole acre organically. But 89 man-hours later, when we were only 1/2 through, we realized that we wouldn't be able to complete the whole project. Necessity being the mother of invention, we decided that the lower half of the field we would call "late organic."

To get organic certification, you can't use unlabeled products for three years. Fraser fir is more than a three year crop. So we decided to handle the trees like a commercial Christmas tree grower would for the first three years, and then switch to organic production for the last three years. We figured between the time in cutting the fabric (it's cheaper to buy it in rolls), putting it around the seedlings, the cost of the fabric and staples, and our labor (we "paid" ourselves $10 per hour), it cost $1.50 per seedling to use the fabric.

Of course we had set up the whole field all wrong. If we had known we were going to be doing this, we would have blocked the field off with a plot of "organic" next to a plot of "late organic" replicated through the entire acre. That isn't what happened. The organic section is at the top of the hill where it is rockier, and has no doubt lead to more issues with seedling mortality.

Our second stumbling block was the weather in 2008. It was DRY. In fact, I'm surprised we lost as few seedlings as we did. There were 6.4% mortality in the organic trees and 3.3% in the "late organic" trees from May to October, 2008. These numbers are not outrageous for newly set trees. Really considering how little water fell that season, the survival was remarkable. I was really worried that the ground cloth would make the soil too hot and cook the little seedlings, but that didn't happen. And if you look at the pattern of mortality in the field, you can see that most of the seedlings died in the organic section where it was rockiest. In the upper-most area where it isn't rocky, we lost almost no seedlings.

Of course, the lack of rain helped with weed control. I was surprised how little it took to control the weeds in the organic section. Bryan used a weed-eater twice in 2008. We have some problem weeds in this field including lots of fescue, spotted knapweed, and poison ivy. Because of the PI, Bryan won't let me help him weed-eat as I am quite allergic to it. (He is probably more worried about me cutting down little trees). .

Spring of 2009, we fertilized the trees with organic fertilizer which we scattered on top of the ground cloth. We were kind of late knocking down all the weeds that spring. Bryan went through with a weed-eater in May, but the trees had already started to grow and they were shaded too much, causing the growth to be stunted and off color. By the way, it typically takes Bryan 4 hours to weed-eat the entire organic plot which is about 1/2 acre. He applies the Roundup (8 ounces per acre) on the "late organic" which is also about 1/2 acre in about 1/2 hour.

On July 21st after the trees had hardened off, Byran and I went through and measured the terminal growth of a random selection of seedlings in both parts of the field. There was tremendous variation, as you always see with Fraser fir. But the seedlings in the "organic" section grew an average of 4.1 inches and the "late organic" an average of 7.4 inches. That's a big difference.

What I've learned so far is the following. First of all, we really didn't set up the field correctly for organic. It probably isn't even the best field to grow organic trees. It faces southwest, which will mean it will be hotter and there will be more problems with spider mites. There was a lot of fescue in the field prior to planting. We didn't put down any organic matter prior to planting. If I had my druthers, I would have incorporated as much organic matter as possible, and tried to kill out the grasses before the trees were ever set. It would have been best to start a year before setting the trees to get the site ready. But when we started, the seedlings were newly planted. You don't look a gift horse in the mouth, so we went with what we had available.

Secondly, we need to be quicker knocking down the weeds in the spring so the young seedlings can grow better. Thirdly, we need to find a better source of fertilizer and think of other ways of putting it out.

I am speaking at the Organic School in Asheville on March 6 & 7. I don't know if anyone will come or not, but I certainly enjoyed pulling together the talk and all the information. I keep posting on this site how things are looking with this project.

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