It was less than 60 years ago when people like Hal Schudel, Bob Stohr, Alvin Hofert and G.R. Kirk, who were pioneers of the Oregon Christmas tree industry, brought Christmas tree harvesting out of the forest and onto the farm. Today nearly all of the real Christmas trees used in America are farm grown using many of the same labor-intensive methods they developed. During this same period most mainstream agriculture has become highly mechanized. While some of the tasks involved in farming Christmas trees have been adapted to mechanical processes, the bulk of the work is still done by hand.
This somewhat old-fashioned reliance on human labor has left even the biggest producers of Christmas trees in the country in the hands of family-run operations. Christmas trees are considered to be a minor crop by the USDA and at present, there are no large corporate owners of the major farms involved in the production of Christmas trees in the United States. In the state of Oregon which is the country's largest producer growing around 25% of the nation’s trees with a crop valued at $121 million, Christmas trees are still just the state's seventh largest crop. So Christmas tree farming is still a relatively small and traditional form of agriculture. As a result, production of Christmas trees is quite diverse and very often local, with trees being grown in 40 US states, Canada and Mexico.
Christmas trees are a very long rotation crop when compared to most forms of agriculture. After a 2 or 3 year old seedling is planted, it takes on average another 7 - 8 years in the field for the tree to reach harvestable size. So instead of the farmland being plowed, disked and harrowed every year, the ground is being worked only after an 8 year rotation, vastly reducing opportunities for erosion to occur. And 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 6 tons/acre, with 1/3 of that remaining in the soil as roots decompose.It is generally not good to leave farmland open and exposed to the ravages of winter weather. As a form of semi-permanent agriculture, once the trees become established and take root they serve as a cover crop helping shield and protect soils during winter storms. And the photosynthesis on an average acre gives off enough oxygen to support at least three people. Coupled with the low impacts on the land of using primarily hand labor, Christmas tree farming offers rural landowners an environmentally sustainable way to earn a living from their land while also providing the positive social benefit of stable rural employment in their own communities.
Communicating with the public about the environmental and social benefits of Christmas tree farming is a fairly recent effort, Farmers as a lot tend to be focused on production issues, but in 2008 Northwest Christmas tree growers initiated a multi-year process for establishing industry wide environmental standards for Christmas tree farming to support a certification program titled ''Sustainability Certification of Christmas Trees". That initiative is ongoing and comprehensive guidelines are being established by the Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association in conjunction with the Oregon Department of Agriculture.
Prior to the launching of that initiative, in 2007 three of the largest and one of the smaller Christmas tree growers in Oregon banded together to form the CECG, or the ''Coalition of Environmentally Conscious Growers" (www.christmastreecoalition.org). They have an established and respected environmental standards firm perform an independent audit of their farming practices to check for sustainability, measuring riparian/wetland management, soil and water conservation, nutrient management, site selection, integrated pest management (IPM), worker health and hygiene, biodiversity and consumer education. This ongoing certification program represents a genuine effort on the part of those farms to provide the public with an authentic and verifiable way of knowing that the real Christmas tree they may want to take home was grown using sustainable agricultural methods that also provide a lot of stable jobs for people in rural parts of America.
The number and variety of jobs created by the Christmas tree farming industry are really quite remarkable. There are jobs created every step of the way from the retail Christmas tree lot in the neighborhood, and the workers harvesting and shipping those trees, to the crews who work in the fields cultivating, planting and pruning. There is even an entire specialty surrounding the production of the millions of Christmas tree seedlings planted each year.
One of those large seedling nurseries is operated by CECG Coalition member Silver Mountain Christmas Trees located near Sublimity, Oregon, owned by Jim and Shirley Heater. Their farm has been instrumental in the application of many of the key pieces of equipment for the Christmas tree nursery industry and they have pioneered new low impact methods for site preparations and planting of Christmas tree fields. The Silver Mountain Nursery produces seedlings for the Christmas tree industry, reforestation and for the farm’s own Christmas tree operations. This family farm has maintained continuous operations for over 150 years old and now actively farms over 3,600 acres, so it has a long history of providing employment in their local community. The combined nursery and Christmas tree operations regularly employ over 70 people year around and up to 200 seasonal harvest workers. Collectively, Christmas tree growers in the State of Oregon provided over $37 million in total wages in 2008. 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.
The most common task facing Christmas tree growers once the trees are planted is the annual pruning, or shearing the trees require to attain the desired shape and configuration. Usually beginning after the second season every tree is sheared once every year, usually in the summer, and it is all done by hand. With long, sharp knives and hand clippers, workers go around each tree one at a time. On average a worker can shear 300 to 400 7’ trees per day. With approximately 350 million Christmas trees planted in North America, that is a whole lot of work.
Shearing Christmas trees was pioneered by Hal Schudel in the late 1950's working with Douglas fir. He is the patriarch of Holiday Tree Farm located in Corvallis, OR. Dave Schudel, Hal’s son is the eldest of the three brothers who still own and operate Holiday Tree Farm, and he helped launch the CECG Coalition in 2007. Established in 1955, Holiday is the nation’s largest Christmas tree farm with a diverse operation growing trees on over 7,000 acres centered around Oregon's Willamette Valley. Each summer and fall large crews go out to the fields to shear the millions of trees Holiday Tree Farms grows. It is physically demanding and highly skilled work. Experienced workers train new recruits in a ongoing cycle of employment. Of course the direct field work comprises only a fraction of the hundreds of full time jobs a company the size of Holiday Tree Farms creates. Greg Rondeau, Holiday’s sales manager cites peak season employment of nearly 1,000 local jobs so there is a very substantial direct impact to the local economy, and a large indirect effect on area vendors, truckers, and suppliers which recycle many of those dollars.
Harvesting the trees is the biggest single job for a Christmas tree farm, presenting huge logistical obstacles on a demanding time schedule coupled with notoriously wet Oregon winter weather. Large farms like Yule Tree Farms of Aurora, OR with over 3,800 acres in production use helicopters to move the Christmas trees out of the fields quickly and efficiently while simultaneously reducing the impact 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. He oversees an operation established in 1964 that currently harvests and ships over half a million of trees annually, and it all has to happen in about a month. It requires a challenging coordination of the helicopters and field crews that cut the trees and move them out of the fields with yard crews that bale the trees and load the trucks. Freight must be kept moving and customer's orders filled at a demanding pace. Hiring in the Christmas tree industry peaks at harvest time, and that surge is often filled by crews and support staff from other local area farms that grow other crops. Yule Tree Farm’s regular contingent of 75 full time local employees jumps up to around 375 during harvest time. These are significant job numbers in a rural community that when taken together with the impact on local trucking and freight, helicopters and equipment rental, generate an impact of approximately $7 million for the local economy from this one Christmas tree farm.
Most of the Christmas tree farms in America are much smaller independent farms, growing trees on 100 acres or less. Many of these farms operate locally as u-cut operations providing families a place to go out to a real farm to select and cut their own Christmas tree. Other small tree farms have combined farming with retail Christmas tree lot operations in order to survive. The CECG Coalition's smallest member, Santa & Sons Christmas Trees, has done just that joining an 80 acre farm near Eugene, Oregon with a retail Christmas tree lot in Los Angeles, CA. Having come up through the field ranks of the shearing crews in the 1970's, owner Mark Rohlfs started his first Christmas tree lot in 1978 with Patricia, the woman he would later marry. They planted their first field of Christmas trees in 1981. A working man's background didn't allow for expansion of the farm, so the decision was made to focus on the retail Christmas tree business. After operating a number of tree lots near Phoenix, AZ, in 1993 they moved the business to the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles where they continue to operate a large retail Christmas tree lot located at Los Angeles Valley College.
This kind of traditional Mom and Pop operation has largely disappeared from American agriculture, albeit we are now experiencing a widespread revival of local farm markets. But that kind of farming never went away with Christmas trees and small Christmas tree farms continue to maintain a substantial market share even today. Many a young person has gotten their first job helping out at an independent Christmas tree lot, and while full time employment at Santa & Sons and other small farms may each only account for a few jobs year round, and perhaps a few dozen at harvest time, 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 a way for rural people all across the nation to sustain a self reliant lifestyle working on relatively small acreages and to be productive in their own communities.
On tree farms big and small, there is a great deal of work involved in growing Christmas trees and bringing them to market. From start to finish these tend to be labor intensive tasks. And all this work is not destructive to the earth, quite the contrary. Farmland is stabilized by Christmas tree farming and local environments are improved. It is among the ''greenest'' of green industries. And all of the work is in the service of a truly noble goal, to bring joy to families at Christmas time. The joyful memories of our own childhoods around the Christmas tree during the holidays 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
Read more about Christmas tree farm certification at www.environmentalchristmastrees.com.