Christmas tree shortages near and far: Climate change putting NC’s gold standard Fraser firs at risk

North Carolina News

(FOX 46 CHARLOTTE) – It’s not quite jingle bells, but the loud sounds of saws spark holiday cheer.

Picking a Christmas tree is a favorite holiday tradition, and people come from all over for one of ours. Visitors from eastern North Carolina tell FOX 46, “when we saw all the cars and we saw that they had them on top, we decided we would do that too and I think we’re going to make it a yearly tradition.”

That’s because we house the best, “The North Carolina Fraser, it’s the Cadillac of trees.” Cale Smith is the owner of Appalachian Farms, “The fragrance and needle retention and the branch toughness, it’s the best tree there is,” he explains.

His family has been harvesting this gold standard tree for nearly 50 years. Thousands of his trees bring Christmas cheer to the entire Southeast, from Baton Rouge to Virginia Beach.

The farms are busy, “There’s a high demand because there’s a shortage of trees”, and the trees are moving fast, “so many people didn’t plant through the years when there was an overage of trees, and it takes so long for a tree to be produced,” Smith explains.

Christmas trees are planted based on the previous year’s sales. That overage came 10 years ago in the recession when many couldn’t afford the Christmas tradition, Smith explains, “These trees are anywhere from 7-12 years old and it just takes the cycle a long time to catch up.” And that catch-up 10 years later found us in a global pandemic, yearning for the comeback of tradition.

We’re not deforesting forests for these trees. These Christmas tree farmers are just like any other farmer, they are cultivating a crop for you at home, and this one is just meant to give you Christmas spirit! Now this farm alone at Appalachian Farms, they do about 150,000 a season, that’s about 2 million trees in the 10-year life cycle of this Fraser fir!

“They’re providing ecosystems in there for animals to cohabitate with them, but they’re also providing daily oxygen as well. Each acre of Christmas tree provides enough daily oxygen for 18 people!”

Travis Birdsell is a horticulture expert at NC State whose specialty is holly and jolly. He grew up on a Christmas tree farm in the Carolinas and now studies the holiday trees.

He stresses the importance of keeping the Christmas tree cycle clean by composting your real trees, reusing your fake trees, and saving energy with led lights.

As our carbon footprint contributes to climate change, our gold standard Fraser firs are at risk,

“Our trees do need cold weather to set their needles,” Birdsell explains warming falls mean poor needle retention for the trees and a lot of green on your floor.

“Our Fraser fir Christmas tree likes moderate and even weather, so what we’re seeing with climate change is more severe patterns,” he adds.

Weather is becoming more extreme, droughts are drier, and rain is heavier.

“You may look at the average annual rainfall and it looks the same, but we receive those in bursts and those heavy rains followed by long periods of drought are very stressful on our trees,” Birdsell explains.

So horticulture and genetics experts at NC State like Birdsell, “I fundamentally believe that science can advance us there,” are working on engineering a more resilient, more adaptable Christmas tree. “We have to figure out better genetics, we have to figure out problems that are arising from insects that like these warmer temperatures and how we battle them,” he explains.

These different Christmas elves are saving traditions with science for kiddos to come.

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