Christmas tree farms grow green jobs

In the 1950s pioneers of the Oregon Christmas tree industry like Hal Schudel and Paul Goodmonson, Bob Stohr, Bob Kintigh, Alvin Hofert and G.R. Kirk brought Christmas tree harvest out of the forest and onto the farm. Nowadays nearly all Christmas trees are farm grown still using some of these labor-intensive methods they developed.

christmas tree farmersThat reliance on human labor has left even the biggest producers of Christmas trees in the United States in the hands of family run farms. Oregon is the largest producer of Christmas trees in the United States, growing around 25% of the nation’s trees with a crop valued at around $121 million. Still it is just the state’s seventh largest crop. So Christmas tree farming is still a relatively small, traditional form of agriculture, with a diverse production base spanning over 40 states and Canada. Because it is labor intensive agriculture Christmas tree farming is suitable to smaller acreages, making available to many private landowners a sustainable and environmentally responsible source of income from their land.

Christmas trees are a stable and sustainable crop. After two-year-old seedlings are planted it takes another seven or eight years for Christmas trees to reach harvestable size. Unlike annual crop agriculture, on land growing Christmas trees there is an accumulation of carbon in the trunks and roots of the trees at the rate of about six times per acre, with about one third of that remaining after harvest as roots in the soil. The trees themselves physically protect the soil from heavy downpours and provide shelter to wildlife. And the photosynthesis on an average acre of Christmas trees provides enough oxygen to support at least three people. And the most important way Christmas tree farms conserve the land is also naturally one of the simplest. Instead of being plowed, disk and harrowed every year, Christmas tree farm land is only being worked up after eight or more years, so opportunities for soil erosion are vastly reduced. And this long rotation is precisely what adds value to the communities where these farms are located, providing predictable stable employment.

christmas tree farmChristmas tree farming creates a large number and variety of jobs in rural parts of America where economic success stories are rare. Jobs are created every step of the way from the local retail Christmas tree lot to the workers harvesting and shipping those trees. There are crews working in the fields planting, cultivating, shearing and pruning each tree every year. There is even an entire specialty involved with the production of millions of Christmas tree seedlings used every year, but "tooting their own horns" by communicating with the public about the environmental advantages of Christmas tree farming and the social benefits of the jobs that are created in their rural communities is a task most farmers avoided in the past. But growers increasingly are coming to understand the need to maintain a dialogue with their customers that informs and educates them about the farming methods being used and the impacts upon the land.

In 2007 four Oregon Christmas tree farms banded together to form the CECG, or the "Coalition of Environmentally Conscious Growers" www.christmastreecoalition.org. They had an independent company that certifies sustainable farms inspect their land and audit their farming practices checking for riparian and wetland management, soil and water conservation, site selection, nutrient and integrated pest management, wildlife and plant biodiversity, worker health and hygiene, and consumer education. This first of its kind certification program for Christmas tree farming represented a genuine and sincere effort on the part of those farms to provide the public with an authentic and verifiable way to certify that the real Christmas tree they are using in their own was grown using sustainable agricultural methods while at the same time providing stable jobs for a lot of people in rural parts of America.

environmentally conscious growersMore recently the Northwest Christmas tree industry has begun to develop a similar certification program in conjunction Oregon State University Extension called SERF or "Socially and Environmentally Responsible Farm". Physical inspections of the farm and an audit of farm practices are conducted by the Oregon Department of Agriculture

Most Christmas tree farms in the United States are small independent family owned and operated farms growing trees on 100 acres or less. Some are strictly wholesale but many others operate locally as u-cut operations providing a real working farm for families to go out to select and cut their own Christmas tree. Still others support their farms by setting up retail Christmas tree lots to sell their trees.

christmas tree seedling nurseryThe CECG Coalition's smallest member Santa & Sons Christmas Trees has done just that for nearly 30 years, supporting their 120 acre Oregon family farm established in 1983 with a large retail Christmas tree lot in Los Angeles, CA in the parking lot of Los Angeles Valley College located in the San Fernando Valley on the corner of Burbank Boulevard and Coldwater Canyon, providing seasonal employment for students and local residents. Many a young person has gotten their first job helping out at an independent Christmas tree lot, and well full-time employment at small farms make each only account for a few jobs, there are a lot of small tree farms with close to 15,000 In the US according to the National Christmas Tree Association. Farming Christmas trees provides rural people throughout the United States and Canada to sustain a self-reliant lifestyle on small acreages and to be productive in their own communities.

That kind of traditional mom-and-pop farm has largely disappeared from American agriculture. But that kind of farming never went away with Christmas trees and we are now starting to experience a widespread revival of farmer owned markets.  Still the lion’s share of the nation’s Christmas trees are produced by larger farms.  But even the biggest producers of Christmas trees in the country are still the hands of family-run operations. One of those farms is CECG coalition member Silver Mountain Christmas Trees located near Sublimity, Oregon. Their farm has been instrumental in the development of several key pieces of equipment, pioneering new low-impact methods site preparation and planting of Christmas tree fields.  The Silver Mountain Nursery produces seedlings for the Christmas tree industry, reforestation and for the farms on Christmas tree fields. This family farm has been continuously operated for over 150 years and now actively farms over 3,600 acres, employee over 70 people year-round and up to 200 seasonal harvest workers.

christmas tree shearingOnce the trees are planted, each tree must be sheared by hand every year so this is the biggest task facing Christmas tree growers. On average a worker can shear perhaps 400 or 500 trees a day, so with over 300 million Christmas trees growing in North America that is a lot of work.  Using methods first developed by Hal Schudel, workers use long sharp knives and hand clippers, going around each tree individually to shape the annual growth to attain the desired shape. Shearing Christmas trees was pioneered by Hal Schudel of Holiday Christmas Tree Farms of Corvallis, OR. His three sons, David, Steve and John still own and operate the farm, which is the nation's largest with Christmas trees growing on over 7000 acres around Oregon's Willamette Valley. Throughout the summer, fall and winter, large crews work in the fields shearing the millions of trees they grow on over 7,000 acres, creating hundreds of year-round jobs. Greg Rondeau, Holiday’s sales manager sites peak season employment of over 1000, so there is a very substantial direct impact to the local economy directly from those jobs and from the effect on local area vendors, truckers and suppliers effectively recycling many of those dollars throughout the local community. 

christmas tree helicopterHarvesting the Christmas trees is the biggest single job for Christmas tree farms. For large farms like Yule Tree Farms of Aurora, OR that presents huge logistical obstacles on a demanding time schedule. Facing notoriously wet Oregon winter weather, most of the large farms use helicopters to move the Christmas trees out of the fields quickly and efficiently in a low-impact manner that avoids the use of tractors and equipment on wet soils.  Joe Sharp, managing partner for Yule Tree Farms was one of the founding members of the CECG Coalition and a strong proponent of the movement to establish a certification process to communicate with the public. Overseeing an operation that ships nearly half a million trees annually require is a challenging coronation of the field crews that cut the trees and bundle them for the helicopters with the yard crews that  bale the trees and load the trucks. Freight must be kept moving and customer’s orders must be filled at a demanding pace. Hiring at this farm peaks in November and December at nearly 400 and that surge is often filled by crews and staff from other local area farms that grow different crops that have been harvested earlier.

Collectively, Christmas tree growers in the State of Oregon provided over $37 million in total wages in 2009. And because this is mostly rural employment, it allows local people to stay in the community providing stability that goes far beyond the direct economic impacts.

mom and pop christmas tree farmOn tree farms big and small, there is a great deal of work involved in growing Christmas trees and bringing them to market. And all this work is not destructive to the earth, quite the contrary.  And from start to finish these tend to be labor intensive tasks. Farmland is stabilized by Christmas tree farming and local environments are improved making it a conservation crop. It is among the ''greenest'' of green industries.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Christmas tree farming is that all of the work is in the service of a truly noble goal, bringing joy to families at the holidays. Those joyful memories of our own childhoods around the Christmas tree helps sustain us throughout our adult lives. When we choose to celebrate Christmas using a real Christmas tree, we keep these same real memories for our own children alive knowing that we are also sustaining green jobs in rural parts of our own country.

 

Author - Mark Rohlfs is owner of Santa & Sons Christmas Trees www.santasons.com and farms Christmas trees near his home in Philomath Oregon.

National Agricultural Statistics Service – Oregon Department of Agriculture - 2007 Census of Agriculture

Accumulation of Carbon by Christmas Trees – 2010 Gary Chastagner et al Washington State University

Freer Consulting of Seattle, WA

USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service  Sept 16, 2009

National Christmas Tree Association 2009