Christmas Tree Farming

Visiting a local Christmas Tree farm to choose a fresh, locally grown tree is a family tradition - an event to savor together while directly supporting American farmers, sustainable agriculture, and filling up on fresh air (and hot chocolate!) 

Celebrating the holiday season with a fresh, farm-grown Christmas tree is a long-standing holiday tradition for millions of American families for whom a real Christmas tree is a symbol of giving, sharing, and celebrating together. Evergreens have been used as decorations and symbols of life during winter solstice celebrations since ancient Roman and Egyptian times. Over the centuries, the practice evolved and was incorporated into the celebration of Christmas. 

Now in the 21st century, the gathering of families to choose their centerpiece of holiday celebrations has become a tradition you can start any year, as parents share the experience of choosing the perfect tree together with their children and grandchildren. Many even share the tradition with their local Christmas tree farmers as they return to the same farm year after year. 

Today, 98% of all real Christmas trees used each year are grown sustainably as a crop on American farms, much like corn or pumpkins. Although the ready-cut Christmas tree industry started in the mid-nineteenth century with trees that were cut from the forest, today only 2% of trees are harvested from forests. Even then, most of those trees come from forests like the Eldorado National Forest which offers Christmas Tree Permits to the public for $10 each in an effort to help reduce dangerous fuel ladders (flammable understory vegetation that, when it burns, carries flames up to the canopies of mature trees which otherwise would survive forest fires) that have grown up over years of fire suppression. Removal of excessive amounts of small trees from the forest will help create a healthier forest over time. 

The planting of trees in plantations began in the early twentieth century and increased greatly after the Second World War. According to the latest Census of Horticultural Specialties, by 2014 there were about 2,893 Christmas tree operations selling around $367 million worth of trees, most commonly Fraser fir, Douglas fir, Colorado Blue spruce, Balsam fir, White pine, Scotch pine, Noble fir, White spruce, Grand fir, and Leyland cypress. 

Christmas trees take seven to ten years to get big enough for your living room, so Christmas tree farms are an enterprise that many small or part-time farmers consider as an option for their unused, open land, often as an investment to supplement their seasonal farm income or as income for their retirement, while larger operations may regard the plantation as their primary occupation. Like farming the world over, growing and marketing Christmas trees is labor intensive and the work often needs to be done under adverse weather conditions. 

It's also surprisingly sustainable. For every real tree that is cut for the holidays, 1-3 new trees are planted in its place, each of which will spend seven to ten years "breathing in" carbon dioxide from the air and storing it in its wood and roots. The roots stay in the ground when the tree is cut, safely sequestering the carbon dioxide for decades, and the wood is 100% recyclable. 

No matter how many years you reuse an artificial tree, they're almost never recyclable, so someday it will end up in a landfill - and then stay there for a thousand years. In contrast, most cities have recycling programs to pick up your real Christmas tree in January. Champaign-Urbana, home of Agrible headquarters, has free Christmas tree pickup on our regular recycling pick up day in early January, or we can take them to the Landscape Recycling Center at no cost during the month of January. The collected trees are chipped and made into garden mulch by the cities' local Landscape Recycling Center, so trees can't be recycled with stands, decorations, tinsel, lights, artificial snow-frost, plastic bags, or any other material that doesn't belong in garden mulch. Acidifier Mulch, aka shredded pine mulch, is excellent for acid-loving plants such as azaleas, rhododendrons, blueberries, pin oaks and various conifers, and is priced extremely reasonably. Recycled whole trees can also be used to stabilize eroding beaches or waterways, or to create underwater safe havens for fish in man-made lakes and borrow pits. Still-green ones are even used as toys and food for animals in zoos!

If you decide to support a local or American farmer this winter by purchasing a real Christmas tree, there are tips on the selection and care of a real Christmas tree, and lots more at www.realchristmastrees.org, but ultimately, your best source of information is likely to be the farmer who grew your exact tree on their farm. 

Many local Christmas tree farms offer wreaths, greenery, Santa Claus appearances, hot cider and cocoa, a campfire where people can warm up after cutting their trees, a gift shop with ornaments for customers, even pony-pulled tree-sleighs or fluffy Newfoundland dogs to pull your Christmas tree out of the plantation and straight to your car. While these can be an important source of income for small farmers on a cut-and-carry Christmas tree farm, it's more like the icing on the sugar cookie. Trees are the farmers' main focus, and the rest is simply holiday cheer. 

Buying from a big box store may be the quickest fix for people who just want to grab a tree and be done with it. But for your maximum dose of holiday spirit, make a Christmas memory and start a family tradition by visiting your local Christmas tree farm to find the perfect, perfectly fresh and sustainably American-grown Christmas tree this year!