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.

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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.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”
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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 …

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… then the trees are run through a netting device …

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… and piled up by size.

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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.

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

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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.

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