Christmas trees burned by the heat, dwindling the supply


For a state that produces more Christmas trees than anywhere else in the country, Oregon Christmas tree growers are struggling after Mother Nature put on a show in 2021.

Oregon produces roughly 40% of the nation’s Christmas tree supply, according to the National Christmas Tree Association, a trade association representing hundreds of tree farms and other affiliated businesses.

This past summer’s heat waves have resulted in losses of Christmas tree crops, as well as an increase in prices.

“I had 30% mortality, but every single seedling is damaged without question,” says Tom Norby, who owns Trout Creek Tree Farm and is trying to overcome one of his toughest years.

Norby is the president of the Oregon Christmas Tree Growers Association and says some farms across his state have experienced a total loss.

“There are literally fields with hundreds of acres of dead seedlings. Just 100% mortality across the entire field. If you produce a million trees a year, you don’t have time to deal with that,” says Norby

Norby says the state’s farms were largely spared from the 225,000 acres that were scorched across the state from wildfires, but says the weeklong heat wave in June was the real killer.

“The heat dome came at the absolute worst time. It came when those new seedlings were trying to take root on that fresh soil and push out new shoots, and they just couldn’t compete with that heat,” says Norby.

The heat-scorched trees have led to less supply in California this year, but in Oregon, where saplings were significantly impacted, it could be the supply seven to 10 years from now seeing the pinch.

The Pacific Northwest heat event occurred in late June, shattering heat records. Portland set an all-time, record-high temperature three days in a row, topping out at 116 degrees. Seattle hit 108 degrees.

Lytton, British Columbia, reached 121 degrees, the highest temperature ever recorded in Canada, and around 48 degrees above what’s normal for that time of year. That town burned to the ground a day later.

Jeri Seifert, president of the California Christmas Tree Association and farm owner, says the heat wave had a huge impact on the farms in California, mainly from sunburn.

When the tree is exposed to too much sunlight and heat, without sufficient moisture, parts of the tree or the entire tree can sunburn, resulting in tree damage or the tree completely dying.

“When the heat dome hit, most of the native trees were burned on their southern-facing sides, so you can’t market a tree that’s brown on one side,” says Seifert.

In a heat dome, high pressure acts as a lid on the atmosphere, and as hot air attempts to escape the lid forces it back down, warming even more as it sinks.

Wildfires have also impacted farms in California.

According to Seifert, one farm in her state lost 90% of its farm in one of the wildfires and even the owners’ home. She has seen Christmas tree growers closing their doors left and right.

“When you lose a plantation, there’s a huge process that goes into regrowing those trees, so it takes many years to recoup,” says Seifert.

There’s not a lot of money in Christmas tree growing, says Seifert, so younger generations aren’t stepping up to run the farm and instead opting for higher paying jobs.

“Many of our farmers here in California are approaching retirement, so as they move up in age and experience a forest fire ravaging through their farm, it’s just time to close their doors,” she says.

This year’s weather extremes has resulted in the loss of supply and, according to Seifert, prices of trees have gone up from 10 to 15%.

It’s been a calamity of weather events that has turned this industry on its head, one that both Seifert and Norby hope they can overcome.

“This is a global warming event that’s impacting Christmas,” says Norby.

His hope is that we don’t have another extreme heat event next season. Norby believes he can salvage many of this damaged trees, since it takes eight years to grow one.

But he says if another extreme heat event hits his farm next season, he may not be able to recover.

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