Drought Threatens Future Christmas Tree Supply

Do you prefer a real Christmas tree or an artificial one? Although artificial trees have their advantages—they’re convenient, clean, reusable, fire-safe, and allergen-free—there’s only one right choice for environmentalists: real trees all the way.

So says the Texas A&M Forest Service, which sings the praises of real Christmas trees that are grown on Christmas tree farms in all 50 states. In addition to cleaning the air by converting carbon dioxide into oxygen, it says real Christmas trees filter water, limit runoff and potential flooding, provide shelter and food for wildlife, reduce erosion and pollution, and cool the average temperatures around them by nearly 10 degrees. And that’s just before they’re harvested.

After harvest, it says, real Christmas trees have been found to improve the mental health, productivity, and happiness of those who have them while also boosting their immune system and lowering their anxiety. Plus, real Christmas trees can be recycled after the holiday season courtesy of organizations that convert them into mulch or composted soil.

The same can’t be said of artificial trees, which are made almost entirely of metals and plastics that are difficult if not impossible to recycle.

“If you wanted to recycle an artificial tree, you would have to pull each individual needle off of the entire tree,” Marsha Gray, executive director of the Real Christmas Tree Board, told the Texas A&M Forest Service in a 2020 interview. “Otherwise, you would have to throw it away, where it would remain in a landfill indefinitely.”

Clearly, real Christmas trees offer many benefits. But there’s at least one major drawback to them in the age of climate change: They’re prone to wildfires and drought, so the festive consumers of tomorrow might have trouble finding the perfect Christmas tree for their holiday home.

That’s already the case this year, according to the American Christmas Tree Association (ACTA), which says drought is a “main driver” of the loss of young Christmas trees on Christmas tree farms in many parts of the country. In some regions, it reports, drought-stricken Christmas tree growers are struggling with challenges like irrigation, elevated temperatures, and generally dry weather. Combined with other challenges in the U.S. economy—including inflation, supply chain disruptions, and fears of recession—the result is fewer and more expensive trees.

“While there may be enough trees for everyone who wants one, the options may be more limited,” ACTA Executive Director Jami Warner said in a September statement, ahead of the 2022 holiday season. “Our … recommendation to consumers is straightforward: If you want a specific type, style, or size of tree … find it early.”

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What is the carbon footprint of a tree and how do you calculate it? There is a calculator from Poland-based Omni Calculator that lets you figure it out. It considers how much you could reduce your footprint depending on the disposal method or by building zero-waste trees using everyday items, such as books. Learn more.

One Christmas tree-growing region that has been particularly hard-hit by drought is the Pacific Northwest, including Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Since 2010, the Willamette Valley has experienced six below-normal rainfall years along with longer and hotter summers, reports Oregon State University (OSU). These conditions have been especially difficult for newly planted noble fir trees on Christmas tree farms, notes Chal Landgren, Christmas tree specialist for the OSU Extension Service.

“Since very few Christmas tree growers have installed irrigation, trees need to make do with available soil moisture to survive,” OSU reports. “Tree roots expand after planting to capture moisture, but in years when the soil is dry by August, the trees lose out. First, trees wilt then needles turn red and roots die. The percentage of trees that succumb will depend on the year and the field, but growers have experienced up to 90% mortality.”

Christmas tree farmers in the Northeast have also struggled. “The state of Massachusetts was especially pummeled by flash drought this year. By mid-July, 80% of the state was experiencing moderate to severe drought,” reports Gizmodo. “One of the state’s Christmas tree farmers lost more than 1,000 trees that he planted this spring due to the hot and dry weather … This is about a 95% loss from that crop, the farmer estimated.”

To safeguard against future losses, Christmas tree growers have begun planting more drought-tolerant tree species like Douglas and Turkish firs. If extreme weather and wildfires from climate change continue, however, no forest or farm is safe.

But don’t cancel your future Christmases yet. Just because Christmas tree growers in one state or region are challenged doesn’t mean Christmas tree lots will be empty.

“Remember that no one story is the whole story,” Gray said in a recent statement. “It has always been the case that this retailer may sell out earlier than that retailer, but neither one provides a complete picture. The real Christmas tree industry is bigger than any one farm, retailer, or region—and we’ve never run out of trees.”

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