Monthly Archives: December 2015

December Farming in Focus: Christmas Trees

This month’s Farming in Focus is an obvious one, and I’m publishing this story today with the hopes that you’ll read it while you’re winding down from your Christmas morning extravaganza. Kids are playing with new toys and you’re sitting there drinking your coffee next to your Christmas tree. I thought I’d take this prime opportunity to talk about where those Christmas trees come from and the work that goes into getting them from the farm to your festive family room.

Oregon grows more Christmas trees than any other state in the United States: in 2013 Oregon harvested 6.4 million Christmas trees, almost double the second runner up, North Carolina. In fact, in 2013 greenhouse and nursery crops, which includes Christmas trees, was Oregon’s most valuable commodity. This should really come as no surprise to those of us who live in Oregon, where the Douglas fir is a native species and is almost ubiquitous. So it was an easy decision to talk with Christmas tree grower Joel Rohde in Amity, Oregon about how he grows Christmas trees.

xmas trees-1

Rohde, a second generation farmer, does more than just grow Christmas trees. He also owns a small grocery store/coffee house and has a straw export business. In fact, Rohde was quick to tell me that he’s getting out of the Christmas tree business because it’s just not lucrative enough and the export hay business makes more money. He keeps the grocery store simply because he likes being part of the community. “Half the high school is in  here in the afternoons. You can’t be in it to make money, but it’s a good community thing.” Rohde primarily bought the store (in partnership with another owner) so the local kids working there could keep their jobs. His wife mostly runs it now.
xmas trees-2

Rohde got into the Christmas tree business in 2001 when it was booming and trees were selling for $3.50 to $4.00 per foot wholesale. He started planting trees, but so did everyone else. By about 2007 there was too much supply and the market tanked. Prices dropped to $1.00 per foot. It’s rebounding a bit now, back to about $2.50 per foot, but he’s down to his last 20 acres of Noble firs now (which is still a lot of trees – he told me he grows 1,752 trees on an acre.) He used to grow Noble fir, Grand fir and Douglas fir on about 100 acres. When he decided to scale back, the Douglas and Grands went first because they grow faster (it takes about seven years for a Douglas fir to grow six feet versus nine years for a Noble.) He’s just waiting for the last of the Nobles to reach the right height and he’ll be done in about two more harvests.

xmas trees-9

Rohde told me growing Christmas trees is very heavy on labor and he doesn’t love the physical work. He starts planting seedlings from nurseries in April and after three years he starts basal pruning (cutting limbs from the bottom up so they can eventually get the chain saw in to cut it down.) Shearing alone costs about $.30 per tree. He also has to manage for weeds between the rows so the weeds don’t compete for resources and get in the way of shearing. In the summer he sprays for insects and fungus. He fights aphids that turn the inner part of the tree black and cause the needles to fall off, and fights needle necrosis which could be caused by a fungus and causes needles to turn brown. Sometimes he can sell trees with needle necrosis as flocked (sprayed white) Christmas trees. After the fourth year he starts to shear the trees into the classic Christmas tree inverted “V” shape. Ninety percent of trees sold are between six and seven feet, so for a Noble fir that’s about nine years worth of management before harvest.

xmas trees-3

Rohde also told me he does a lot of tip pruning and leader work. Sometimes the leader (that characteristic tip you put your star on) will die off and he’ll have to train a new leader with a stick like he’s doing in the image above.

xmas trees-12In July and August the trees get tagged by color based on height. Then in November they start harvesting. On Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays Rohdes has 12 to 15 high school guys working eight hours a day. I had a heck of a time even catching up to this guy and his chainsaw. He and another guy moved so fast through the rows that I had to run to keep up. They had those trees down in a blink of an eye. It was awe inspiring.

xmas trees-10

Following the two guys with chainsaws was a group picking up the trees and hauling them to the edge of the field. Rohdes told me his favorite part about growing Christmas trees is working with the high school and college kids. He spends a lot of time coaching and counseling the kids. “This job defines a kid, physically,”  he told me. “After two to three weeks you’ll have the desire to go back to school and get good grades.”
xmas trees-15

The rest of the process would seem familiar to anyone who’s been to a U-cut Christmas tree farm, only on steroids. Another crew picks up the trees from the edge of the field and first puts them on a machine that shakes them to remove loose needles …

xmas trees-6

… then the trees are run through a netting device …

xmas trees-7

… and piled up by size.

xmas trees-14

Then the crew hauls the shaking/baling machine up the hill to the next pile of cut trees. One difficulty in the whole process, as you can see in these pictures, is trying to keep the trees out of the mud (who wants to buy a Christmas tree caked in mud?) Anyone who’s ever lived in Oregon in November and December can understand what a difficult task that can be, especially when you’re driving a heavy baling machine and trucks up a down a hilly terrain (where Christmas trees grow best) in the rain.

xmas trees-5

Afterwards the trees are piled on to a truck and taken down the  hill.

xmas trees-17

Eventually the trees are taken to McKenzie Farms, a Christmas tree yard that ships the trees world-wide. Upwards of 90 percent of Christmas trees grown in the Pacific Northwest are shipped outside the region, with California being the largest market. Rohdes told me his trees have also been shipped to Hawaii and Mexico.

And, obviously, the final destination is your family room where many of us are sitting today, enjoying our festive tree with our families on Christmas day. Remember today, as we sit by the fire and enjoy the fresh Christmas tree smell and all the memories that come with this day, that there’s a farmer out there who put up to nine years of hard work into your tree. He’s thanking you for enjoying his hard work and we’re thanking him for making our Christmas that much more enjoyable.

Merry Christmas.

Please like & share:

Leave a Comment

Filed under Farming In Focus

The Science of Mom: Read This Book (or Give it for Christmas)

When I was pregnant with June, the only book I read was What to Expect When You’re Expecting. I took the childbirth classes recommended by the hospital, and I can’t even remember, but I think I took a breastfeeding class. That was it. I’m not even sure I made a birth plan, or if I did, it was very basic. I didn’t read any books about what to do when the baby actually arrived –I was completely focused on the pregnancy and getting all the right baby gear.

It did not go as planned. I went into labor one day shy of full term, and when I got to the hospital we discovered June was breech and I’d have to have an emergency cesarean. I was shocked. I’d only skimmed the chapter on cesarean in the book and I only half paid attention to that part in class. But then everything happened really quickly, they delivered June via cesarean and it turned out fine. June was perfectly healthy even though she was technically premature.

first weekI will never forget the complete and utter feeling of astonishment when we were moved from the delivery room into the post-partum room and the nurses started to leave. Both my husband and I looked at them, no doubt with utter shock in our eyes, and said, “Wait, you’re going to leave us alone with her??”

Two years later I had spent more hours alone with a baby than I ever thought possible (most of them in the middle of the night.) I had more realistic expectations for July’s birth and by then I knew all the gear I really needed was diapers and boobs. Again, it did not go as planned. I went into labor even earlier this time, just shy of 36 weeks, it went slower than before, I ended up with an epidural, I freaked out my OB by having a vision-altering migraine while pushing and July was delivered very quickly with forceps to avoid further complications. I was encouraged to have an MRI and think hard before having any more children. He was perfect, but I needed pain killers for a long time.

The point of these stories is that childbirth rarely goes as planned and it is only just the beginning of the confusion.  When you’re pregnant, being pregnant is all-consuming – what should you eat, how do you get prepared, how should you exercise? Then when you’ve had a child, what to do with that child is all-consuming – where should she sleep, what do you feed him, do you really need that vitamin K shot?

Here’s my unsolicited advice to new moms: don’t just read What to Expect When You’re Expecting. In fact the pregnancy part, as all-consuming as it feels at the time, isn’t the most confusing part because at that point it’s still your body (IMO). Once your pregnancy becomes a tiny little human separate from you but for whom you’re completely in charge the decisions are even more complicated.  Spend your time reading information that will help you make those decisions.  And under no circumstances should you rely on Google and mommy forums to help you make those decisions, because there is nothing more judgmental than a mommy forum. You will not get good, evidenced-based advice there. They’re not terrible and can offer a support group if you find the right one, but in my experience, moms are the biggest critics of other moms and you’ll get pressure to do things a certain way, often with total disregard for science.

A few months ago I was asked to read and review a book called The Science of Mom: A Research-Based Guide to Your Baby’s First Year by Alice Callahan. Alice is a blogger with whom I am familiar because she lives just down the road in Eugene.  Now, my kids are much older than one year and to be honest, I don’t normally review books. But I’ve gotten a lot of support from fellow bloggers in this space, so I felt like I should at least give it a read and if I didn’t think it was useful, I wouldn’t review it. Alice is a new(ish) mom who has a PhD in nutritional biology and spent two years investigating fetal physiology as a postdoctoral scholar, so she’s clearly qualified to write on the subject.

Her book is fantastic. If all you do is stand in Barnes and Noble and read one chapter, read the chapter about vaccines. It should be required reading for all new parents. Alice writes in a soft and non-judgmental way, in a way I’d have a hard time doing. It’s not pushy,  just informative. I’m not even going to have any more kids and I was reading out loud to my husband at night about the science behind when to cut the umbilical cord, simply because I found her presentation of the subject so compelling. In her book, Alice has applied her scientific scrutiny of the literature on subjects ranging from the benefits (or lack-thereof) of breastfeeding, to the cultural framework behind co-sleeping, to what your baby’s first foods should be. She calms fears and provides parents with real facts. She doesn’t make the decisions for you, but she makes it a lot easier to make sound decisions.

So if you know someone who’s having a baby soon and you’re not sure what to get them for Christmas, get them this book. In fact, even if you already got them something, do them a favor and get them this book, too.  I wish I had read it when I was pregnant with June, because it would have kicked off my whole parenting experience on the right foot – an evidence-based foot. Thankfully, I’ve gotten there on my own, but for new parents Alice’s book provides the tools to potentially save them from falling into the black hole of pseudoscience and misinformation that runs wild in parenting communities. You should read this book, even if you’re like me and don’t plan to have more kids, because it’s interesting and well written.

Please like & share:

Leave a Comment

Filed under Just Being a Mommy Stories

November Farming in Focus: Squash

For this month’s Farming in Focus, I wanted to do something Thanksgiving-y. The obvious choice was to try to hunt down a turkey grower and find out what I could learn about how that tasty bird gets from the farm to our Thanksgiving table. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a turkey grower and none of the Oregon farmers I reached out to knows a turkey grower. Turns out, there aren’t very many turkeys grown in Oregon anymore. So, I went with another Thanksgiving staple: squash. I drove down to Aurora, Oregon on a very cold and rainy November day to chat about decorative pumpkins and edible squash.
squash-16

Dylan Wells and his family own Autumn Harvest Inc., the largest mini pumpkin and gourd grower in Oregon. Dylan’s father originally got into agriculture at the age of 20 when he started growing tree seedlings for Christmas tree production and reforestation efforts. Eventually he switched to nursery production and grew grafted ornamentals until 2009 when the housing industry crashed and took the landscape market with it. Thankfully, in the meantime Dylan and his brother Darren had created a mini-pumpkin business initially as a way to earn enough money to go to Disneyland and later to Hawaii to see their dad inducted into the Oregon Association of Nurseries. When their roadside mini-pumpkin business inherited the Safeway decorative pumpkin contract from a neighbor, they went from growing three acres to fifteen acres and eventually when the nursery business crashed in 2009, the boys’ pumpkin business was big enough to support the family.

squash

Today Wells runs the business with his wife, mother, and father. On about 200 acres, he grows 18 to 20 varieties of pumpkins, 25 varieties of winter squash, seven to eight varieties of gourds, and a few acres of dill weed, pickling cucumbers, and Indian corn. About seven years ago he got into edible squash which currently makes up about twenty-five percent of his business. His most popular product is the mini white pumpkin (primarily for weddings and decorations) and his top sellers in winter squash are butternut and acorn (also called danish squash.) When I asked Wells what his favorite squash is he confessed, “I don’t really care for squash.” I seriously laughed so hard I almost fell out of my chair.

squash-1

While we were chatting about how Wells gets his product to market, a distributor pulled up to collect just one lonely box of red kuri squash for a local restaurant. Unlike some crops like peas, squash and pumpkin growers don’t get contracts ahead of time from the cannery. So instead of agreeing on a price ahead of time and growing a specified number of acres, Wells says he operates on the “plant and pray” approach. Starting in about January he starts placing seed orders for what he’ll plant in May. He has to guess what consumers and distributors will want based on what they bought last year. Wells sells directly to consumers in their online store (which they are actively trying to grow as it makes them the most money), and also sells wholesale and to distributors. Wells supplies pumpkins and squash to Fred Meyer, Safeway and WinCo, so next time you pick up a squash at one of those stores, it might have come from Autumn Harvest!

squash-5

When I visited all the fruit had already been harvested out of the field so I didn’t get any field shots, but I did get to see the crew cleaning and packing butternut squash. Pumpkins and squash are harvested by hand with clippers starting August 15th and are brought into be washed. Here they first go through a floating, sanitizing soak to get most of the debris off.

squash-6

Next they are scrubbed and rinsed by hand and run down a line of these spinning brushes.  Wells told me at the height of packing he employs about 50 people, and on average they’re making about $13 per hour. His foreman makes closer to $20 per hour and he has some employees that have been working for him for years who make more than the first-timers. Forty percent of Wells’ cost is in labor, and if the minimum wage increases as it’s looking like it will, Wells told me he’ll be put out of business because he just can’t afford it. The minimum wage discussion  has him already looking into investing more in real estate and considering getting out of farming all together.

squash-7

Then the squash roll down the line under big fans. Moisture and heat lead to rotting squash, so getting them dry is very important. If these were decorative pumpkins, it’d be at this point that they might be sprayed with food-grade wax to make them look shiny (similar to what is done for apples.)

squash-8

Next the squash are sorted by size. In the case of butternut, squash that is very small or very large often end up being sold as pre-peeled and sliced. In fact, Wells told me he grows some varieties specifically for the pre-cut market (like the massive butternut he’s holding in the first image.)

squash-9

When the squash are being sorted in the last step, some go into the dump bin. Wells told me about 25 percent of his product gets kicked out as “coals.” Sometimes they get tossed aside because of size, sometimes because of scarring, rotting or broken pieces. The stores won’t take scarred squash because customers won’t buy them. Wells told me spaghetti squash are particularly susceptible to scarring as their skins are very thin and when the wind blows the vines scrape across the surface of the squash and damage it. While weeds are Wells’ biggest pest, the cucumber beetle and brown marmorated stink bug are also very serious pests. The bugs take bites out of the squash and lead to scarring and rot. Wells has an arrangement with some pig and cattle ranchers who come collect the “coals”  – he essentially gives away 25 percent of his crop as livestock feed. Often he gets a free pig out of the deal, though. He can’t compost the unwanted squash because the seeds stick around and volunteer squash pop up in the wrong places. I’ve experienced this in my own backyard garden; this year I had a rogue spaghetti squash volunteer in my tomato garden out of my compost. Considering that it vines and produces fruit heavy enough to pull down my tomato cage and leaves the size of dinner plants, I can understand why Wells doesn’t want unwanted squash in the wrong field.

squash-15

Wells told me when the squash are harvested they’re selecting for color and hardness. As I mentioned, planting starts in May and harvest begins August 1st and goes through November 1st, but there’s a lot that goes into making sure that red kuri squash looks just right. Squash are thirsty plants and require irrigation throughout the summer – they will abort squash production to conserve resources if it’s too hot or they don’t get enough water which happened a lot this summer when it was really hot and dry. They also produce male and female flowers, meaning they need a pollinator to create fruit. Wells rents about 150 to 200 hives for the bloom. Weeds are a problem too; Wells said if you don’t manage it right the pig weed will get four feet tall. Much of the weed management has to happen before the vines get too big because after the plants are established the only real option is hand hoeing.

squash-4

I was blown away by the sheer number of bins of squash. They were everywhere: sitting inside the warehouse, sitting outside in the rain, under non-climate-controlled structures. Wells told me they plan to have it all sold by the beginning of December because once it starts to freeze the squash deteriorate and they have very little climate-controlled storage. After that they clean up, the extra squash goes to livestock feed, they maintain and repair vehicles and equipment and start ordering seeds to get there by April 15 so they can start working the ground and planting in between rain showers in May.

squash-13

Wells also grows Indian corn which dries out in this structure under fans for almost a year. The corn above will be sold next fall. One of the reasons Wells grows Indian corn is because it offers crop rotation outside the cucurbita family which includes squash, pumpkin and cucumbers (so pretty much everything else Wells grows.) Squash is susceptible to mosaic virus which leaves the leaves spotted and can stunt growth and ruin a crop. Incidentally, there is one variety of GMO yellow crookneck squash that has been genetically engineered to be resistant to the mosaic virus because there aren’t good treatments for mosaic virus. The only thing to do is rotate your crops to prevent the virus from showing up. Wells trades land with other local farmers every three years, which is about how long he can grow squash on the same field before the virus shows up.

squash-10

I asked Wells if he gets a lot of pressure to go organic because of the niche market he’s in. He told me he does, and he’d love to put 50 or so acres to organic production because he could triple his asking price. The only thing holding him back is the crop rotation issue I mentioned. Wells trades land with grass seed farmers for crop rotation and in order to go organic, he’d have to get them to agree to also be organic for a season as well. So far he hasn’t been successful at convincing anyone to do it.

squash-12

Right before I left Wells told me he had to show me one more cool thing: Hot Skwash. Daria Knowles, an artist out of Portland, salvages unusable squash stems and corn husks to create velvet pumpkins and corn adorned with Swarovski crystals that sell in Neiman Marcus from $30 to over $100. So next fall, in addition to decorating your table with real mini-pumpkins, you can also decorate with couture squash art!

As always, I hope you learned something cool about squash production today. Leave a comment if you did!

Please like & share:

2 Comments

Filed under Farming In Focus