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This year, buy a locally-grown Christmas tree

January 5, 2011

As far as I'm concerned, Christmas just isn't Christmas without a real tree. And I'm certainly not alone in that opinion. Real Christmas trees have a stately presence and a rich, fragrant aroma that awakens the senses, brings the forest into the home and warmly welcomes everyone who enters.

Every year at this time, people all over the world set out in search of that perfect tree. Nothing less will do. The tree has to be dense but not too dense. And not too sparse, either. No Charlie Brown trees, please. And it can't be too fat, too tall, too pale, and definitely not crooked.

I know exactly where I'm going to place my tree once I get it home. I measured the area - twice - inventoried the decorations; the balls, bells and other treasured ornaments, checked to see that the lights were working and, since I'm one who would rather string popcorn than use tinsel garland, made sure I had plenty of popcorn on hand. Yes, it takes time and effort, and I probably eat at least as much popcorn as I string up on the tree, but that's part of the fun.

A beautifully decorated Christmas tree isn't just a tradition; it's one of the most beloved symbols of the holiday season. Families unite to set up and decorate the tree, anxiously anticipating Christmas morning, when they will gather around it once again, to celebrate and open presents.

According to the most recent U.S. Census of Agriculture (2007), there are 17,367 Christmas tree farms in the United States, growing trees on 343,374 acres of land nationwide and employing more than 100,000 people full or part time. More than 12,000 of those growers operate "cut your own" farms. About 15 percent of those growers (1,154) are in New York, utilizing 20,267 acres across the State.

The National Christmas Tree Association represents America's Christmas tree professionals and promotes the use of real Christmas trees. According to NCTA statistics, Americans purchased 28.2 million real Christmas trees in 2009, about the same number purchased in 2008. Ninety-eight percent of those trees were shipped or sold directly from Christmas tree farms. About 78 percent of the trees were sold pre-cut. The remaining 22 percent were sold as cut your own. The industry realized a $1.15 billion retail market.

Most of the live trees purchased in 2009 (32 percent) were purchased directly from the growers at their Christmas tree farms. Twenty percent were purchased at chain stores, 17 percent at local retail lots; 13 percent were sold by churches and other nonprofit organizations; and 10 percent were purchased at nursery and garden centers.

In 1966, the NCTA began its time-honored tradition of having the Association Grand Champion grower present a Christmas tree to America's first lady, for display in the Blue Room of the White House. That year, Howard Pierce of Black River Falls, Wis., presented a tree to President Lyndon Johnson and first lady Claudia (Lady Bird) Taylor Johnson.

This year's Grand Champion is Christopher Botek of Lehighton, Pa. He and his family had the honor of presenting the official White House Blue Room Christmas Tree, an exceptional Douglas fir, to First Lady Michelle Obama, in a ceremony at the North Portico on Nov. 26. Christopher is not the first member of the Botek family to present a tree to our nation's first family, however. His parents, Francis and Margaret Botek, were NCTA Grand Champions in 2006, and presented that year's Blue Room tree to then first lady Laura Bush.

Christmas trees may be seasonal, but Christmas tree production, which integrates elements of both agricultural production and forestry, certainly is not. Year-round management and maintenance are required. However, Christmas trees can be produced on land that would be only marginally productive for most agriculture, and Christmas tree production requires less ground cover disturbance than that needed with many agricultural crops. Christmas tree rotations are much shorter than timber rotations and Christmas trees can be grown economically on small acreage, as well, whereas agricultural crops and timber production often requires large acreage for economical management.

Christmas tree production is generally thought of as environmentally friendly, too. The trees are a renewable resource. Harvested trees are replaced with seedlings. In fact, to replace harvested crops and meet future demand, North American Christmas tree farmers planted roughly 41 million seedling trees in 2010, according to NCTA estimates. And because Christmas trees are 100 percent biodegradable, they are often recycled into mulch, to be used in gardening or to prevent soil erosion.

Very few consumers know or even consider where their trees come from, and even fewer realize the challenges faced by Christmas tree producers. Large investments, long-term commitment and lots of work are required.

There are the production costs, which include the price of seedlings and machinery such as tractors, mowers, tillers, sprayers and shearing tools. Then there's the cost of fertilizers, pesticides and other miscellaneous items, such as signs, gates and flagging.

As for the labor, Christmas trees need to be planted, sheared and harvested. And there is always the risk that nursery trees will fail or that their growth, appearance and value will be profoundly impacted by drought, heavy rain, wind, hail, ice or other environmental stress, or by disease, weed and/or insect pressure, or rodent damage. Road building and maintenance may be required as well.

What's more, marketing can be a challenge. Markets and market trends change constantly. Prices fluctuate from year to year. And quarantines may be imposed restricting transport of trees out of state or into other counties, in an effort to control or eradicate disease or insects, should they be discovered.

Some Christmas tree growers are businessmen. Some are hobbyists. They will often have very different goals and approaches. While a businessman might elect to grow a single tree species, the one that will provide the greatest return, an enthusiastic hobbyist might select a favorite variety or several varieties of trees, even with the knowledge that the overall return on his or her investment will not be as great.

For many private landowners, the decision to grow Christmas trees will be just one part of an overall land-use plan. That plan may be designed to protect, preserve and improve aesthetic beauty and wildlife habitat. It may include agricultural enterprises, such as apple orchards, U-Pick berries, fresh vegetables or forage crops. And it may also encompass other recreational and entrepreneurial opportunities.

Please support our local Christmas tree growers. Celebrate the holiday with a real, fresh cut, locally grown Christmas tree and make choosing, setting up and decorating that perfect tree a fun, family event. Your children will love it, they'll love you for it, and you'll be creating memories that will last a lifetime. Have a very merry Christmas!



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