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OSU Extension helps Oregon’s Christmas tree industry
Sunrise Tree Farm owner Betty Malone trims a Douglas-fir Christmas tree in Philomath, Ore. Photo by Lynn Ketchum.
Shearing gives these Douglas-fir Christmas trees their distinctive tapered shape at Sunrise Tree Farm. Photo by Lynn Ketchum.
Hal Schudel, a pioneer of modern Christmas tree farming, co-founded Holiday Tree Farms in 1955. Photo by Lynn Ketchum.
By: Gail Wells
One of Rick Fletcher’s boyhood memories is of hunting Christmas trees on his family’s southern Oregon ranch. “I was 8 years old, and I was wading through snow up to my waist, dragging these trees out of the woods. We’d truck them south and sell them at our family’s lot in Los Angeles.”
The trees, of course, were the forest-grown kind: sparse-limbed, flat-sided, bent-stemmed—the only choice in those days. “You could wander a long way,” says Fletcher, “before you found a tree anyone would call perfect.”
By the time Fletcher grew up and became a forestry agent with the Oregon State University Extension Service, things were changing. Today the Christmas tree universe is utterly transformed. Plantation-grown trees—straight, sturdy, bushy and vividly green—have become a huge industry in Oregon, thanks in large part to Fletcher and his colleagues.
Oregon is the leading producer of Christmas trees in the nation. The state's growers sold 6.4 million trees in 2010, grossing $91 million, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. About 1,600 operations cultivated 57,000 acres in Oregon last year and employed nearly 8,000 full-time and seasonal workers, the service reported. Oregon trees travel the world—people in the Philippines, Hong Kong, China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand enjoy their spicy fragrance—but most are sold in California and the Southwest.
The idea of farming Christmas trees instead of hunting them started in the early 1950s, as growers in Michigan and the East experimented with plantation spruce and Scotch pine. In Oregon, pioneer grower Hal Schudel and partner Paul Goodmonson bought their first 238 acres near Kings Valley in 1955 and planted Douglas-fir seedlings. Their enterprise grew to become Holiday Tree Farms, headquartered in Corvallis and the largest grower of Christmas trees in the nation.
“Paul and I are often credited as founders of the modern Christmas tree industry,” writes Schudel in his memoir, "From the Great Plains to the Great Northwest." That’s not quite right, he says. “We were the first to grow plantation trees in volume, using modern agricultural knowledge, and to market them competitively throughout the United States.”
In this, the burgeoning industry was greatly helped by OSU Extension agronomy. Growers were developing a new farm crop from scratch, and they had many questions about basic agricultural practices such as selection of planting stock, fertilizing, spacing, irrigation, weed control and soil productivity. Extension researchers and agents like Bob Logan in Roseburg and Ken Brown in the mid-Willamette Valley began working with Oregon Christmas tree pioneers like Barney Douglass and Drew Michaels, as well as a growing number of farmers interested in the new crop.
Brown, a small-fruits expert, experimented with ways to prune trees to a perfect conical shape. This was a new idea, and nobody knew for sure whether customers would like the fluffy, full-bodied look. Hal Schudel recalls sending the first carloads to his LA wholesalers and wondering, “What if I can’t sell all those crazy sheared trees?” But they were a hit, and sheared trees became the industry standard.
By the mid-1970s Christmas trees were booming. OSU Extension hired a statewide Christmas tree specialist, but county faculty found their workloads ever expanding. Clayton Wills in Clackamas County was working with poultry as well as Christmas trees and “he had more jobs than he could handle,” according to Dan Green, who joined the team as an Extension forester in 1976. In 1979 Fletcher and colleagues Chal Landgren and Mike Bondi joined Green to become the go-to Extension team for Christmas tree growers.
Their first urgent question concerned fertilizer. “We found that farmers were applying way too much nitrogen,” Fletcher says, “which was costly and bad for the groundwater.” He and his colleagues started researching Christmas tree nutrition. Their work culminated in the publication: Christmas Tree Nutrient Management Guide for Western Oregon and Washington (PDF)
Soil productivity was another concern. Landgren and colleagues looked at the effects of machine compaction and long-term herbicide use on the soil, as well as the effects of continuous cropping on nutrients. “We found that if they don’t take care of the site—if they continually take, take, take and don’t put anything back—then they’ll have declines.” Most growers are now careful to avoid compacting the soil, and some are planting cover crops after two rotations (a rotation is five to six years for Douglas-fir, nine to 11 years for noble fir). “I’d like to think we helped make that change,” Landgren says.
Extension research has also produced better planting stock. The earliest seed sources for Christmas trees were forest-grown trees, which tend to be lean and rangy. Growers wanted uniform, bushy, fast-growing trees with generously budded stems. Brown, Landgren and their colleagues began research to identify promising Douglas- and noble fir trees to use for seed sources. They established seed orchards on cooperating growers’ farms. Now, nurseries plant seeds from these superior trees to produce the best stock. More recently, Landgren and colleague Gary Chastagner, an Extension plant pathologist at Washington State University, have been screening trees for their needle-holding capability.
This season, holiday trees have become a little bit greener with a new sustainability program for Christmas tree farms. Trees from certified farms have met standards for protecting land, water, wildlife and the people who work on the farm. The trees bear a tag identifying their origin as a Socially and Environmentally Responsible Farm (SERF).
“A SERF-certified tree assures you that this real tree is grown using the best and safest methods known,” said Landgren, who helped create the certification program.
To be certified, a farm must develop a plan for all their operations addressing five areas of social and environmental health: biodiversity, soil and water resources, integrated pest management, worker health and safety, and consumer and community relations.
OSU Extension provides training and support to growers in developing their sustainability plans, the Oregon Department of Agriculture conducts independent inspections of the farm, and the Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Growers Association provides the final certification approval.
Grown on sustainable farms, Christmas trees are cultivated just like other crops; growers plant one or more to replace every tree they harvest. Bondi has been appearing on television in California and the Southwest during the past few holiday seasons, advising consumers on the care of Christmas trees and explaining their “green” virtues: They absorb carbon dioxide and produce life-giving oxygen. They don’t threaten natural forests. They provide wildlife habitat and rural scenery. They’re grown by family farmers. They support local economies. They can be recycled and turned into mulch or compost, so no waste goes into landfills. And they smell heavenly—even the cleverest artificial tree can’t perfume the house with that wholesome fragrance.