An Introduction to Growing Christmas Trees
Michael C. Bondi
Extension Forestry & Christmas Tree Agent for
OSU in Clackamas and Multnomah counties.
Oregon State University Extension Service, 200 Warner Milne Road,
Web site: http://extension.oregonstate.edu/clackamas/
Growing, harvesting and marketing Christmas trees is big business in Oregon. In fact, more Christmas trees are produced in our state than any in the U.S. Clackamas County is one of Oregon's leading tree producing counties with approximately 2 million trees collectively harvested annually by over 300 growers.
Clackamas County has been a favored area for producing trees for several reasons. First, Christmas trees are well-suited to many of the marginal agricultural sites in the county. Second, excellent proximity to transportation and markets is ideal for domestic and international destinations. Third, a long history of growing Christmas trees in the region has resulted in a well-developed infrastructure of technical support, services and "know-how" that is an essential part of any healthy industry.
Why Landowners are Attracted to Growing Christmas Trees
Christmas trees can be an attractive farm and rural land management option for property owners. Every individual should evaluate their own personal and financial goals when deciding which crop to grow. Common reasons why Christmas trees are selected follow.
In general, this industry has experienced a relatively steady upward climb in market development since its beginnings in the mid-1950s. As a result, growers have often enjoyed good selling opportunities for their trees. However, market declines and fluctuations do occur, as in all agricultural industries. But, the trends in Christmas trees are slightly more extended due to the longer-term rotations. The most recent decline in markets occurred between the late 1980s and the early 90s.
It can cost from $5 to $10 per tree to grow the plant from establishment through harvest. This includes typical land costs and all phases of culturing. With current market values, annual returns per acre range from $600 to $1000.
Christmas trees are taxed as an agricultural crop. In most Oregon counties the crop qualifies for farm property taxation and the 5 year income requirement. For landowners in metropolitan areas, where rural property values are high, Christmas trees can offer an opportunity for a substantial reduction in taxes compared to rural residential rates.
One of the great myths about growing Christmas trees is that you can make you a lot of money with very little work. Most agricultural and horticultural crops are labor intensive. Christmas trees are no exception. However, an advantage of Christmas trees is that the work required is distributed throughout the year and has a relatively long time frame to accomplish the tasks.
The primary tasks requiring considerable time include tree planting, weed control (usually 2 or 3 years), shearing/culturing (every year starting about age 3), marketing, harvesting, and business management. Additional tasks can include insect or disease control and fertilization.
Another advantage of growing Christmas is the possibility to grow the crop with little equipment—even if you plan to do much of the work yourself. A planting shovel, backpack sprayer, shearing knife and hand pruner may be the only requirements.
Professional and contract services can be hired to do all of the needed work described above. But, remember that hiring help shifts the work load from getting your hands dirty to one of administration. It takes considerable time and effort to find good quality help, communicate your needs, and supervise the work being done.
Evaluating Your Land for Christmas Tree Production
The easiest place to begin when judging the capability of land for Christmas tree production is the county soil survey. These are usually available at your local Natural Resources and Conservation Service (NRCS, www.nrcs.usda.gov) office or the Extension Service. Determine the most common soil types on your property. The best soils for Christmas tree production will be gently sloping ones that are relatively deep (3 to 4 feet to bedrock) and have good to excellent internal drainage. The Jory soil type is considered the best for Christmas tree growing. This reddish clay loam soil typically occurs throughout the region on the foothills of the coast and Cascade mountains. The soil is usually four to five feet deep to bedrock.
The most important soil factor to examine is drainage. Look for the terms "well drained" or "moderately well drained" to describe the soils suited for growing Christmas trees. Also, check to see that winter water tables are no closer than 24" from the surface.
Another land characteristic to consider is the slope or topography of your site. Gently sloping locations are best. Generally, slopes should not exceed 5 to 10% except for short distances. Soil erosion risks and maneuverability for machinery are key concerns on sites with more slope.
Finally, the rockiness of the soil is a factor. This is often an issue at planting time when plowing, discing and subsoiling may be done. If machine planters are used, rockiness of the soil is a consideration, too.
Most Common Christmas Tree Species in the Pacific Northwest
Douglas-fir(Psuedotsuga menziesii), Oregon's state tree, has historically been the primary tree species grown for Christmas trees in the Pacific Northwest. About one-half of all trees produced annually are Douglas-fir. This tree takes 5 to 7 years to bring it to market. Douglas-fir is the easiest and least expensive tree for the novice grower to produce. The tree grows quickly, has relatively few pests, and is easily sheared. Douglas-fir typically yields a higher percentage of marketable trees than other species. However, this species usually has a lower market price than other trees. Until recent years, the majority of trees grown and harvested in Oregon have been Douglas-fir.
Noble fir (Abies procera) is Oregon's premier Christmas tree. It commands a higher price than any species, up to twice the value of Douglas-fir. Noble fir is a slower growing tree (6 to 10 years) and much more genetically variable. Culturing noble fir is very different from Douglas-fir, with more top work and individual attention to the tree's needs for shaping. As a result, the percentage harvest yield is lower for noble fir and the cost of production is greater. Noble fir is the most demanding tree species requiring the best soil drainage conditions. A root disease, currently with no control, can limit the health and production of noble fir for Christmas trees. The highest degree of expertise is needed to grow noble fir. Despite this, nearly 50% of all Christmas trees grown in Oregon are Noble fir.
Grand fir (Abies grandis) is the third most common Christmas species in Oregon, accounting for about 10% of the annual production. This tree is a true fir, like noble fir, but it is cultured or shaped like Douglas-fir. The growth rate is between Douglas-fir and noble fir, taking about 6 to 8 years to bring a tree to market. Grand fir has an emerald green, glossy foliage and is undoubtedly the most fragrant tree. These factors make this tree a choice for growers to consider. However, grand fir is a more tender species for shipping, especially to colder climate markets, so needle retention can be a significant problem. Also, grand fir is highly favored by insects, especially aphids. The market price for grand fir is between Douglas-fir and noble fir.
A variety of other tree species are also grown for Christmas trees. However, collectively these trees only make up about 3 to 5 per cent of the state's production. Included are Nordmann (Abies nordmannii), Turkish fir (Abies bornmulleriana), Fraser fir (Abies fraserii), Scotch pine (Pinus sylvestris), western white pine (Pinus monticola), and Blue spruce (Picea pungens). Choose-and-cut growers typically offer a wider choice of tree species than wholesale and retail producers.
Information and assistance to plan and implement your Christmas tree venture is available from several sources. Introductory educational materials are available from the Oregon State University Extension Service (extension.orst.edu). Publications and videos cover topics like planting, tree culturing, pest identification and control, and marketing. In addition, the Extension Service offers educational workshops, seminars, tours and demonstrations of interest to Christmas tree growers. Contact your local Extension office for information and programming available in your area.
The Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association (PNWCTA, web site: www.nwtrees.com), based in Salem, is the industry's primary member-grower organization. The PNWCTA includes hundreds of growers, buyers and service providers for the industry throughout the region. Three member meetings are held each year, featuring trade shows, educational programming, business sessions, and time for interaction. In addition, the PNWCTA publishes a magazine, the Lookout, which is probably the best Christmas tree trade publication in the U.S.
Technical assistance is available from a variety of service contractors and consultants. Some work within local areas and others cover larger regions. The Lookout is an excellent source for names and contact information. The county offices of the Oregon State University Extension Service can also provide names for contractors and consultants in their areas.
Growing Christmas Trees in the Pacific Northwest; PNW 6, Revised 2003. Oregon State University Extension Service ($6.50)
Selecting & Buying Quality Seedlings; EC 1196, reprinted 2006. Oregon State University Extension Service ($3.00)
Developing Sheared Douglas-fir Christmas Trees; PNW 227, Oregon State University Extension Service ($1.50)
Developing High Quality True Fir Christmas Trees; PNW 226, Oregon State University Extension Service ($1.50)