Beyond Bare-Ground: Organic Christmas Trees in the South
By Jim Minick
Folks normally think about Christmas trees once a year, when they pick out their holiday centerpiece at the local tree lot. But some of us who live in Christmas-tree-growing country contemplate these green pyramids daily.
In my travels throughout the Southern mountains, I regularly see row upon row of bluegreen cones, many on steep land. Our altitude makes for prime growing, especially of the best-selling tree, the Fraser fir, so tree growers cover hillsides with thousands of these green candies. North Carolina alone has 25,000 acres in production, and Virginia is close behind.
As the North Carolina Christmas Tree Association points out, growing these trees does benefit the environment. For example, “every acre of Christmas trees … gives off enough oxygen to meet the needs of 18 people.” The association also explains that Christmas trees “stabilize soil [and] protect water supplies” if farmers implement proper conservation methods.
But many tree-farming practices degrade our environment and disrupt natural balances.
The industry, for instance, has made a verb of “bare-ground.” To kill all the competitive weeds, you “bare-ground” a field with herbicides before planting, and then keep it
“clean” with additional sprays for the next three years. This promotes fast-growing, wellshaped trees, but it also kills the soil life, wipes out beneficial insects and causes erosion.
Firs like cool, covered ground, so as organic tree grower Tom Brobson articulates,
“'Bare-ground' is about as far from the tree’s natural environment as possible.”
Sadly, the same approach is applied to harmful insects and fungi. One pesticide commonly used, Di-syston 15-G, is so dangerous that a minute amount can harm and even kill farm workers who, for want of time, seldom wear protective clothing. To make matters worse, many pests have become resistant to these chemicals, so, as one farmer puts it, “The more you spray, the more you have to spray.”
A few Christmas tree growers, however, challenge these conventional practices. They grow quality trees without massive amounts of harmful chemicals. I recently talked with four, all experienced in both conventional and organic methods, and all committed to the long term since it takes a tree 6-10 years to mature. These growers tire of seeing fields covered at spray time with, as one puts it, workers in “zoot suits and gas masks.”
Of this group, Curtis Buchanan in Mitchell County, N.C, has become the first and only farmer to produce certified organic Fraser firs in the nation. Having grown trees most of his 50 years, he decided to experiment in 1995 by planting a separate, certified field. He wanted to prove that organic practices can render an equal quality tree; he is close to reaching this goal.
Mark Lackey is another North Carolina grower who has proven that organic practices yield beautiful trees. These methods can also produce a field of weeds. But like the other three growers, Lackey has learned that weeds create the beneficial habitat needed for a healthy system. Lackey and entomologist Richard McDonald used grant money to monitor the populations of insects in his four-acre field and discovered huge numbers of predators controlling the aphids and mites that damage trees. He mows once a year, mainly to herd the predators into the trees and make them do their work.
Tom Brobson and David Brady, like Buchanan and Lackey, have become bug and weed experts in addition to tree farmers. They plant 15 acres in Giles County, Va., and they don’t fertilize as much as the other two farmers (who use a variety of organic composts and fertilizers), so it takes nine year instead of the conventional average of seven to grow a mature tree. But they have found other successes. For Swiss Needle Cast, a fungus that kills needles, they’ve discovered that industrial-strength hydrogen peroxide, an organic solution, works well. And for marketing, they rely on their computers. Both of the North
Carolina farmers primarily move trees through wholesalers, but Brobson and Brady sell directly to the customer, 90 percent through the Internet to the Washington D.C. area.
Almost every tree is sold before it’s cut, and the farmers struggle to meet demand.
All four of these organic farmers also seek to make their farms sustainable through continual replanting, and Lackey has succeeded, growing his fourth rotation on the same land. Conventional farmers can’t replant the same field because of massive amounts of pests, like the fungus phytothera root rot, “the cancer of the Christmas tree industry,” according to Buchanan. Yet none of these organic farmers see it in their fields.
If more growers convert to these natural practices, and if more consumers demand organic trees, we might all help Lackey reach one of his goals. In 100 years, he wants farmers to have to refer to old horticulture handbooks to remember the meaning of the verb “bare-ground.”
Jim Minick teaches composition and literature at Radford University. His essays and poems have appeared in various periodicals including Wind, The Sun, The Roanoke
Times, Appalachian Journal, and Now and Then.