What could be simpler, more natural than a Christmas tree? A lot, it turns out.
Among the thousands of Christmas tree growers in the Appalachian region, just a handful grow their crops organically, and they’re frustrated and puzzled at the resistance to adopting their environmentally friendly and commercially competitive ways. They also wonder why consumers don’t seem to care.
The stakes are high. The complicated process of growing the plump, uniform Christmas trees consumers have come to expect involves frequent applications of powerful, sometimes toxic chemicals to hilly fields where the runoff can end up in groundwater. These chemicals can interrupt natural bird and insect life, and have sparked fears that they might cause cancer in humans living nearby. Also, at least one organic Christmas tree grower speculates that some chemicals may eventually come indoors via transpiration when trees are cut and displayed at home or in the office.
Over the last generation, workers in the Appalachian Christmas tree industry have learned to produce a reliable, high-quality crop. They have prospered, but perhaps at a price. Conventional growers have much to lose if they change methods without guaranteed success, but their long-term survival may ride on less chemically dependent ways.
“The Christmas tree industry is the most polluting industry in the mountains,” says North Carolina grower Mark Lackey.
Lackey is owner of Junaluska Herbs & Botanicals, near Boone, N.C., and has grown Christmas trees for 20 years.
“I used to scoff at people who said they had an allergic reaction to Fraser firs,” he says. “Well, it’s either a genuine reaction to the oils in the trees, which are actually used for treating sinusitis, or it’s the systemic chemicals in the needles that transpire in the house as they draw up water and release fumes. I’m hearing about more and more people with allergic reactions, but maybe I’m just a magnet for those stories.”
After tending more than a quarter million Christmas trees by conventional methods, Lackey has gone organic. He says he pays about $1.50 less to produce each tree than conventional methods, and collects $5 more apiece when he sells them wholesale to dealers.
“My bottom line is better,” he says, laughing. “My fields look like crap but they’re healthy.”
Lackey explains the conventional growing cycle for Christmas trees, from the time 5-year-old seedlings are planted in fields until they are harvested, typically seven years later. Because these valuable trees, especially Fraser firs, can be severely damaged by different types of pests, farmers apply chemicals several times a year: in spring for balsam twig aphids, midsummer for spruce spider mites, and fall in case of woolly adelgid infestations. In addition, the trees get one or two annual applications of chemical fertilizer and one or two more of chemical herbicides. Trees are sheared by hand once a year for a tight, pleasing shape.
It’s a lot of work...and exposure to toxins. His own organic methods — partly self-taught, partly enhanced by state agricultural consultants and education grants — involve no pesticides, one application of organic fertilizer every year or two, and one application of organic herbicide every two years. “My loss rate to insect damage with conventional growing was 1 percent,” he says. “My loss now with organics is 1.5 percent.”
According to Curtis Buchanan, a Jonesboro, Tenn., resident who grows organic Christmas trees on Roan Mountain, the risks of chemicals outweighed the risks of trying cleaner methods and he made the switch. His family has been involved with Christmas trees since the 1950s, at first cutting them in the wild and later growing them as a crop by conventional methods.
“In 1977 we decided to plant on family land and of course had no idea what we were doing with chemicals and got into trouble quick. You had to wear lots of protective gear, a Tyvek suit, neoprene gloves. We were trying to learn all this stuff, digging the hole deeper as we’d go.
“Sometime in the ’80s I started getting into organic gardening. I started a compost pile then and that got me looking at the Christmas trees different. I was having trouble growing an organic tomato, not to mention a Christmas tree. We got all kind of twig aphid damage.”
While Buchanan was busy with organic vegetable gardening in Marion, his dad was struggling with the trees on Roan Mountain. Because Curtis felt an obligation to his dad, he stayed with the chemicals a long time.
“It was a fiasco to live two different lives, the Christmas tree grower’s life and my own environmental activist life. Along about 1994 or ’95, every time I’d go up to help harvest I would start thinking about it. I said, ‘You are somebody that has a little bit of knowledge and definitely the desire and the motivation to change some things and influence some growers.’ I went back into it organic.”
It hasn’t been easy. Buchanan points to the trade-off between the cost of chemicals and the labor costs to monitor soil quality and produce effective compost, as well as applying organic tools to help control pests. “I’ve struggled and made some mistakes. But the important thing is organic agriculture is cutting-edge science.
This is the most progressive thing going on out there.”
The foundation of organic Christmas tree growing, according to Lackey, is healthy soil and botanically diverse green belts around and through the fields. Beneficial insects living in this meadowland feed on the harmful insects that damage Christmas trees. “I’ve got some bad bugs but they’re not a problem,” Lackey says.
“They’re feeding the beneficial insects.”
Before more conventional growers will switch over, say organic farmers, they must be convinced through scientific measurements that have official backing. That is slow going, but Buchanan, Lackey and others say they are making inroads as they share their successes with conventional growers.
Consumers’ lack of understanding about the benefits of organic trees disappoints growers. As he sold trees at Asheville’s Earth Fare this year, Buchanan had to endure a lot of skepticism. “People would walk by and laugh. I’ve got to sit there and listen to this. Then I would get the person who just comes up and says ‘Thank you. Thank you for doing this.’ “
Still, Christmas tree growers in all 50 states may be fighting a losing battle, organic or not. Figures from the National Christmas Tree Association show that in 1990 half of all trees sold were artificial. Last year the figure was 68 percent.
Curtis Buchanan is taking orders for organic Christmas trees for Asheville delivery in the 2003 season. Contact him at 423-753-5160 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Lackey, who’s near Boone, can be reached at 336/385-2002 or at email@example.com.