The future of Northwest Christmas tree farms
by Enrico Villamaino
In 2012, Oregon produced nearly 7.5 million Christmas trees. Since then, it’s been the nation’s top grower of Christmas trees, according to the Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association (PNWCTA).
Despite this, there has been a precipitous drop in Christmas tree production in Oregon over the past decade.
Kari Puffer, PNWCTA executive director, acknowledged that the area has been through some difficult years, but feels that the tree growers of Oregon are up to the challenge. “This is a very important industry in our region,” she said.
According to the PNWCTA, the most common Christmas trees sold in Oregon are the Colorado blue spruce and the Noble, Fraser, Nordmann (Turkish), Douglas and Grand fir breeds.
“There has been a reduction in Christmas tree production statewide of about 40% in the past 10 years,” said Chal Landgren, a forest engineering, resources and management professor at Oregon State University. Landgren also serves as OSU’s Christmas tree specialist. He recognizes a three-pronged impetus to the recent decline.
“To begin with, there was an oversaturation of growers. Starting in 2010, a lot of tree farmers simply decided to get out of the business,” Landgren said. According to the Oregon Christmas Tree Growers Association, there were 383 licensed Christmas tree growers in Oregon in 2019. Landgren estimated there are currently 200 fewer growers in the state than there were 15 years ago.
“Secondly, we’ve had some unusually hot and dry summers over the past five to seven years. This has resulted in a number of lost seedlings, reducing the number of trees that matured enough for sale,” he said. On average, it takes between seven to 10 years for a Christmas tree to grow to an acceptable size for sale.
“Finally, a lot of wholesale, pre-cut nurseries are no longer willing to grow on spec,” Landgren continued. “They’re just not sure how many they might sell, so they produce less to keep from being left with a large surplus on their hands.” The PNWCTA identifies 17 wholesale Christmas tree operations across the state.
Both Puffer and Landgren believe all of these factors have had a cumulative and marked effect on the overall Christmas tree market in Oregon.
Smaller, family-run operations are likewise experiencing the changes in the market.
“Some of these past few years have been devastating,” said Dave Roy, who, along with his wife Michele, owns and operates the 20-acre Quail Creek Ranch Christmas Trees in Portland. “Three growing seasons ago, in 2018, we lost 90% of our trees.” Dave said that with summers becoming hotter and dryer, having a successful spring planting, with seedlings’ roots getting deep enough, is more important than ever. “You used to be able to dig down six or eight inches in the summer, and still find some moisture in the soil. Now it’s dry at that level – the roots have to run deeper in order to survive.” He noted that this year has been better overall, as they’ve seen more rain. He hopes to see an 80% survival rate for his trees in 2020.
Michele reinforced the idea that many growers simply stopped growing Christmas trees. “It’s been getting so dry, especially in the past five years or so. You didn’t used to need an irrigation system, but now you almost do. The mortality rate just shot up, and it absolutely has to do with the climate,” she said. “I’m not a big climate change person, but there’s no denying that a lot of people just got sick of losing half their trees.” She added that many growers have moved into crops less harmed by trying summer weather trends or ones that are easier to irrigate, like marijuana, hemp and blueberries.
Historic Kirchem Christmas Tree Farm in Oregon City missed the entire 2019 season due to not having enough mature trees to sell. Cher and Reginald Tollefson have owned the 100-acre farm of Norway spruce trees for 29 years. Cher feels it’s getting too hard to stick with Christmas trees. “We’ll be open for this season, and we’ll probably have a couple more years of trees after that, but we’re transitioning to pumpkins,” she said. “It’s much easier to deal with a four-month crop rather than an eight-year crop, especially with the dry summers we’ve been having.”
Puffer and Landgren estimate Oregon’s current annual Christmas tree production to be about 4.7 million.
“I do think that it’s stabilized somewhat,” Landgren said. “We’ll see how it goes from here.”
Puffer remains optimistic about the upcoming season. “These are great times for the Christmas tree industry,” she said. “Sales are strong and quality is good. Due to the fact that people are traveling less this year, we believe the holidays will be more home- and family-centered.”