Summer is for berries as winter is for Christmas trees. The centerpiece of your winter holiday decorations is likely to be grown in Oregon, the nation’s leading producer of Christmas trees. That tree represents up to 15 years of research, testing, grafting, and seed production; and it takes another 6 to 10 years in the field before the tree is ready for market. “It’s a home-grown, green industry that provides jobs and sustains the economy,” said Chal Landgren, head of OSU’s statewide Christmas tree program.
In little over a generation, the Christmas tree industry has been transformed. Landgren and his OSU Extension colleagues have helped grow an industry valued at more than $100 million a year in Oregon.
The idea of farming Christmas trees instead of hunting for them in the woods 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. They were the first to grow plantation trees in volume using modern agricultural knowledge, and to market them competitively throughout the U.S.
In this, the burgeoning industry was greatly helped by Agricultural Experiment Station 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. AES researchers and OSU Extension agents, including Bob Logan in Roseburg and Ken Brown in the mid-Willamette Valley, began working with 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 Los Angeles 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 a booming industry in Oregon. OSU Extension hired its first Christmas tree specialists, including Landgren, Dan Green, Mike Bondi, and Rick Fletcher. Their first questions concerned Christmas tree nutrition, the effects of machine compaction and herbicide use on soil, and the effects of continuous cropping on nutrients.
Their 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. Landgren and 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 colleagues at Washington State University have been screening trees for their needle-holding capability.
Research has helped holiday trees 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.
Grown on sustainable farms, Christmas trees are cultivated just like other crops; growers plant one or more to replace every tree they harvest. Landgren enumerates their other “green” virtues: They absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. They don’t threaten natural forests. They’re grown by family farmers and 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 holiday fragrance.