From your home to the White House to Mexico City and Hong Kong, the centerpiece of holiday decorations around the world is likely to be a tree grown on the foothills of western Oregon.
Small-scale independent growers, many from the Portland metropolitan area, have helped make Oregon the nation's leading producer of Christmas trees, harvesting 8.3 million trees this year.
Helping these entrepreneurs grow an industry valued at $151 million a year, a handful of researchers from Oregon State University Extension Service search for improved varieties of trees and better methods of growing them.
Consider the tree in your living room. It represents 15 years of research, testing, grafting and seed production before a new variety is available to growers. Then it may take another six to eight years in the field before the tree is ready for market.
Such a high quality tree begins with high quality seed stock.
For more than a decade, Extension foresters Chal Landgren, Rick Fletcher and Mike Bondi have pursued genetic selection of improved varieties of Christmas trees. Their research not only has resulted in faster growing, higher valued trees for Oregon growers , but it has increased the "keepability" of those trees.
"A Christmas tree that won't hold its needles is worthless," said Fletcher, an Extension forester in Benton County. "Since Oregon growers are always trying to increase exports, it has become more and more important to produce trees that will still be fresh after shipment to distant locations like the east coast, Mexico or Asia.
"Selecting for varieties that produce nice-looking Christmas trees, but also have excellent keepability after harvest has been a major focus of recent genetic selection work that we are conducting at more than a dozen Christmas tree farms around the Pacific Northwest," Fletcher added.
Another aspect of OSU research considers the soil on which trees are grown, intensively over repeated harvest cycles.
"As growers continue producing trees on the same ground, the long-term productivity of the land is essential to the long-term health of the industry," said Landgren, an Extension forester from Washington County.
"We've examined new and older fields to determine if losses in soil productivity are occurring, and how they might be reversed," Landgren said. "At this point there does not appear to be any overall downward trend in productivity, and with carefully selected tree sources and investments in soil management, the next crop of trees should be better than ever."
Christmas trees seem like an attractive crop for rural metro residents, according Landgren. They can be grown without irrigation, and offer a potential reduction in property taxes where property values are high.
"Yet new growers underestimate the time, effort and expense of growing Christmas trees," said Landgren. "The industry has become increasingly competitive. New growers must not only be able to produce high quality trees, but they must also be proficient business managers."
With that in mind, the OSU Extension foresters have developed the annual Tree School, an intensive one-day event to provide growers with the latest information on improved genetic stock, sustainable growing methods, and marketing.
"Selecting better trees and maintaining soil productivity are 'behind the scenes' when people go out to buy their tree for the holidays," said Landgren. "As you look at the variety of trees on the lot, keep in mind the many years of work that researchers and growers have put into providing real trees for Christmas."