Terry Brown, owner of Brown’s Tree Farm, welcomed me warmly into his modest farmhouse. We sat at the kitchen table in straight backed chairs, and looked out a large window at rows of fir trees outside, a red barn in the distance. The whole scene was awash in wispy, dry snow flurries. In the coming days and weeks, these trees would find themselves inside homes all over Chemung County, in Upstate New York. I had come to speak with him about the challenges of the Christmas tree business, and if he’s concerned that it will get harder due to climate change.
He recalled some of his greatest trials growing trees over the years. “A few years ago, I had this whole field—at least 2/3rds of it—full of Douglas fir. And they were beautiful. Then a virus came through—it was called,” he paused a moment to retrieve the name from memory, “the Swiss needle cast—and it wiped em right out.” And in his first year planting—some 40 years ago—he lost 4,000 trees in a drought.
But while he’s concerned about climate change on the whole, as a farmer, he’s experienced see-saw weather patterns firsthand his whole life and is not entirely sure that it’s going to impact the tree growing business anytime soon.
“Things have definitely changed, you know, worldwide, and I understand the science of it, but as a lifelong farmer you always bounce back and say well ‘jeepers, I’ve seen this before.’ My dad is 94 and he’s seen it all before.”
Christmas trees cover a wide spectrum of evergreens, with different species grown and sold in different regions of the US and world. Fir trees, like Balsam and Fraser fir, are the most popular here in the United States because of their soft needles and lush growth. Christmas trees are grown in almost every state in the nation with major centers of production in North Carolina, the Northeast, the Great Lakes region, and the Pacific Northwest. Despite competition from artificial look-a-likes (Most of which are produced in the Pearl River Delta region in China), Americans still love their all-natural trees. In 2015, 29.5 million trees worth $1.32 billion found their way into American households.
How the Christmas tree industry as a whole is going to be affected by climate change is unclear, but individual tree species and the farmers growing them are going to be affected in myriad ways that are likely to cause some amount of disruption.
Hotter and drier conditions are something most Christmas tree species will have to contend with all around the US. Whether these conditions change what types of species are grown and sold will depend on how severe they get, but it’s not hard to imagine some tree types getting taken out of the equation. “Some can take it and some can’t,” said Brown.
Dendrologist Donald Leopold, of the State University of Environmental Science and Forestry in Upstate New York explained to me via email that some evergreens like Scotch pine are able to withstand hotter conditions because of special features like thicker, waxier needles and deeper root systems that help them retain moisture. These types of conifers might make easier Christmas trees to grow in the future. “Fraser and balsam fir will always have a big fan club, but if they can’t be grown as abundantly in the US due to climate change,” he said. “Their price will likely increase and some people will simply not be able to afford them.”
If it gets particularly balmy in, say, the South, where a high percentage of Fraser firs are grown, Leopold surmised that “species rarely grown now, like Turkish fir, will become more common as this and other species are better adapted to warmer and drier conditions.”
A rising temperature also brings other, gnawing consequences to conifer trees: insect pests. “Most likely climate change will favor insects and diseases more than trees,” said entomologist Paal Krokene, of the Norwegian Institute of Bioeconomy Research, in Norway. Selling Christmas trees is ultimately a cosmetic industry, and rampaging bark beetles and sapsuckers that deform trees are bad for business. Slight malformations on a tree usually mean the scrap pile. “Christmas tree farmers don’t tolerate much damage to their trees,” he said.
Jeff Owen, a Forestry Specialist from North Carolina State University, told me that farmers have been dealing with seasonal inconsistencies like drought and flood for as long as they can remember, and that they’re masters at problem solving. But the thing that concerns him is shifting seasons that could make trees vulnerable.
Taking a break from trimming Fraser firs to chat on the phone, he said “If we’ve had a really mild fall, growers get nervous and will delay harvest as long as they can to make sure the trees have had a chance to go dormant.” Dormancy is a kind of tree hibernation. If trees aren’t dormant when they’re harvested, they can die.
On the other side of winter, if early spring is particularly mild, “the trees can start trying to break bud one to two weeks earlier,” said Owen. But he warned: “if you have the trees starting to grow too soon and then you get a hard freeze, you can lose that new growth. That’s one of those things that is very hard for a grower to deal with.”
At his kitchen table, Terry Brown expressed a similar sentiment with me. “What is it going to do to the seasons?” he said, referring to climate change, his arms crossed. “If in April the weather is all of a sudden like June, that changes everything.” If the tree industry is to be hit hard by climate change in the future, that’s how, he thought. “Timing is everything in this business.”
Because of climate change, the most popular Christmas tree types could switch out for other hardier species—trading out some of the firs for more spruces, say. Perhaps live trees will even reach a price that causes some staunch real-tree-consumers to go against their morals and buy artificial trees (nothing says happy holidays like genuine PVC). Or maybe farmers will find a way, like they have so many times before, to overcome the challenges ahead and keep growing the species they’ve got.
Brown leaned forward in his chair and folded his hands upon the table, eyes looking out at the rows of Christmas trees outside. “One thing I do notice is our summers—the heat,” he said. “There is a lot of heat in that sun. I think more so than I can remember.” Clearing his throat slightly, he added “I trim all of these trees by hand, and while I’m not as young as I used to be, I’m just not able to do as many in a day as I used to, because it’s hotter than hell.”
“It’s a wait and see,” he said.
from Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree, How Lovely Is Thy Climate Resiliency