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
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
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
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
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
"One of the problems has been getting seed through customs,"
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
"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.
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
"We get better survival, and there's no root shock," Arkills
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
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
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