Christmas tree growers hope consumers 'keep it real'


Imagine the smell of a crisp walk through a high mountain forest. Now pick up a branch, rub the evergreen needles together and inhale the unmistakable scent of a real tree.

That's what it smells like at the Holiday Tree Farm nursery, where workers place fresh green tips of noble boughs inside metal wreath frames, adding juniper sprigs and incense cedar for character.

At the south Benton County facility, a crew of 80 trims bough ends, assembles wreaths and boxes them for shipping. All total, Holiday makes about 100,000 wreaths each year. That's above the 1 million fresh Christmas trees soon to be harvested for the upcoming holiday season.

And operations are expanding. Just outside, site preparation is underway on nine new greenhouses that will allow Holiday to grow an additional 1 million seedlings at a time.

It doesn't seem like an industry in recovery from a slump that started in the economic recession and ended with about a third of Oregon Christmas tree growers calling it quits.

The good news this year is that prices have rebounded, said Chal Landgren, a Christmas tree specialist with the Oregon State University Department of Horticulture.

"That's good for the industry because we've been selling trees below the cost of production for a long time," Landgren said.

It's not easy for growers to adjust to market swings when it takes up to 10 years from seedling to harvest. When demand for trees fell quickly, it took years to correct overproduction.

Now that prices have stabilized, the industry faces new challenges. Changes in weather and labor shortages have added complexity, and competition from fake trees has increased as the baby boom generation, the core buyers of real trees, walks away from the family tradition.

Growers have pinned their hopes for the future on convincing millennials, a majority of whom were raised in a home with a fake tree, to adopt a new tradition of picking out a real tree.

Still a leader

Oregon's status as the nation's top producer of Christmas trees doesn't appear to be threatened. According to an Oregon Department of Agriculture estimate, Christmas trees were Oregon's No. 13 commodity in 2016, with an estimated value of $90.8 million. Nearly all Christmas tree growers, from the world's largest, including Holiday, to the smallest you-cut operations, are family-owned. Benton, Clackamas and Marion counties vie for the top-producer in the state.

According to a 2015 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the most recent statistics available, about half the state's total production of 4.7 million trees were noble fir, a third Douglas fir and everything else - grand fir, pine, cedar, Fraser and Balsam - is pretty minor.

However, a species new to Oregon is beginning to take root, said Christmas tree expert Landgren. Nordmann fir matches customer preference and offers better disease resistance than native species, he said, so growers also don't need to use pesticide on the trees. Nordmann is a little slower-growing than Douglas and noble fir because it establishes a deep tap root. That makes the tree more tolerant to drought, heat and excess rain, extreme weather conditions experienced in Western Oregon the last two years.

One downside to growing Nordmann is that rabbits and deer find the species tasty, creating a nuisance as they much new growth. Sourcing Nordmann seed has also been an issue, Landgren said.

Removing volatility from the supply chain for Nordmann seed is an industry priority. Nordmann is native to Turkey, and shipments of seed from overseas are subject to inspection, Landgren explained.

"One of the problems has been getting seed through customs," Landgren said.

In 2016, a large shipment of 700 pounds of Nordmann seed was rejected. There wasn't enough seed for nurseries to plant. So even as many growers wanted to expand, seedlings weren't available.

In response, a federal specialty crop grant administered by the Oregon Department of Agriculture is funding the creation of cooperative seed orchards that will eventually provide a local source of new seed varieties.

Labor shortages have also been an issue, Landgren said.

"It's hard on growers," Landgren said. "They've been dreading the harvest season because it's so hard to find people."

Many growers have given up Christmas trees and returned to crops with more mechanized harvests, such as grass seed and hazelnuts.

"It's happening all over the state," Landgren said.

Holiday's peak workforce is about 600, including contracted labor. It has about 150 year-round employees and hires-up during harvest through a contractor with a migrant workforce that follows the harvest of seasonal crops.

New practices

Holiday grows nearly all of its seedlings at its nursery, said production manager Mark Arkills. It used to send the young plants to an outside nursery for a year with the plants returned as bare-root stock. But borrowing from forestry practices, Holiday now uses a different method that produces what is known as a super-cell, Arkills said. The seedlings never leave Holiday nurseries and the soil goes along with the seedling when it's planted.

"We get better survival, and there's no root shock," Arkills said.

This method also shaves a full year off the growing cycle. That's a big deal for a large-scale operation like Holiday, which plants 1.2 million trees each year.

"It's groundbreaking," Arkills said.

Another practice from forestry is changing the planting calendar. There's usually a weather window in early fall before the heavy rains. If the workforce is available before harvest, some growers aren't waiting for spring. After consulting with experts from Corvallis-based Starker Forests Inc., Holiday planted 300,000 seedlings this fall, a little insurance against hot spring weather and extreme summer heat like the Willamette Valley saw in 2016 and 2017.

Landgren said he's confident that the Willamette Valley will remain an ideal place to grow Christmas trees.

"Oregon's uniquely suited to grow Christmas trees because of our rainfall and soil types," Landgren said.

Others ventures, like Holiday's wreath-making enterprise, provide product diversity to help even out the fluctuation in tree prices. The company sends a crew to the forests high in the Cascades to harvest noble boughs and buys ponderosa pine cones, cedar and juniper from other independent contractors who harvest forest products. Even the boxes the wreaths are shipped in are made in Oregon.

Keeping it real

Supporting family-owned businesses is one of the three main messages of the National Christmas Tree Association's marketing campaign. Association members, including Holiday, contribute 15 cents per tree sold to a fund that is used to educate consumers and promote real tree sales. Like other commodities, Christmas trees have their own slogan: It's Christmas. Keep it real.

Tim O'Connor, executive director of the association and the Christmas Tree Promotion Board, said the pitch to millennials is difficult because there's a strong correlation between the tradition you were raised with and the tree you buy. So for most millennials, the tradition is getting a box from storage and assembling plastic branches on a metal frame.

The association seeks to connect with young families about building a new tradition around going together to pick out the perfect real tree. One obstacle they've encountered is that many people don't understand that Christmas trees are a crop that is harvested and replanted.

"Unfortunately, many millennials don't believe that," O'Connor said. "They think it's cut out of a forest."

O'Connor said the carbon footprint of a real tree is much less than that of a fake tree that is assembled at an overseas factory. Real trees are much more friendly to the environment, he said.

"We're aggressively trying to get those core messages out," O'Connor said. "It's critical to the industry."

Read the article on Mid-Valley InBusiness

Written by Rebecca Barrett

Monday, October 30, 2017