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The crisis unfolding in America’s Christmas tree capital | Climate crisis in the American west

The crisis unfolding in America’s Christmas tree capital | Climate crisis in the American west

Hand saws at a tree farm in Salem, Oregon.

IIt happened overnight. Larry Ryerson (78), woke up in Medford, Oregon on Sunday morning to find thousands of Christmas tree seedlings on his 10-acre Christmas trees farm in decline.

After a day of triple digit temperatures, their bright green coloring had evaporated. Ryerson observed the young trees, some just over a foot tall and growing to 115F, become brown and die over the next two days.

“It just kind of breaks your heart that you go out there and one day they’re nice fresh-looking trees, and the next day, they’re wilted and turning colors,” said Ryerson, who co-owns U Cut Christmas Tree Farm with his sister. “And there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Ryerson estimated that he had lost 4,500 trees. He was unable to keep his ucut open for three days because of a lack inventory. His business, which has been in existence for almost 40 years, usually opens around Thanksgiving and continues to be a success until Christmas Day.

Hand saws at a tree farm in Salem, Oregon.
Hand saws at a Salem, Oregon tree farm. Photograph: Alisha Jucevic/Reuters

“I just feel so sorry that a lot of people come up here year after year to get their own tree and we’re one of the few tree farms left in the valley,” he said.

Ryerson isn’t alone. Christmas tree farms in Oregon the nation’s largest producerAfter a year of extreme weather,, found themselves in a precarious situation.

A deadly “heat dome” pummeled the Pacific northwest beginning in late June, shattering heat records in Oregon and the surrounding area, and a drought engulfed the state for months. The drought and heat are believed to have decimated millions upon millions of trees in the state, most of which were seedlings. Farmers had to navigate the consequences of what many described as the worst summer ever.

Some, like Ryerson’s farm, saw huge swaths of their crops destroyed, while others were left with rows and rows of trees with entire sides scalded or new growth withered.

This year will not be the end of extreme weather, given the changing climate. Some Christmas tree farmers in the state are now taking steps to prepare for a climate that may be less favorable to their industry.

Ash from the Bootleg Fire drifts by burned out trees in Beatty, Oregon
The scorching heat in southern Oregon created the perfect conditions for intense fires, including that of the Bootleg.Photograph by Payton Bruni/AFP/Getty Images

Tom Norby is the president of Oregon Christmas Tree Growers Association. He also owns the Trout Creek Tree farm.

Norby’s own farm had minimal loss this past year, which he attributed to planting grass between each of his trees, which helped to keep moisture in the soil and block heat from radiating up to the trees. Some changes might be more dramatic such as planting months before or moving farms further north.

“Frankly,” said Norby, “in 100 years, it may be in British Columbia.”

A devastating season

It was the timing of this heatwave that made it particularly deadly this summer. It struck early in the summer, mere months after seedlings were planted and right in the middle of the crop’s peak growth period.

At the same time, prolonged dry periods, which have become increasingly common in the region, were already making seedling survival a challenge (Christmas tree farms typically don’t irrigate, due to their location and the fact that the trees normally haven’t needed it).

Ryan Swader of Salem loads a Christmas tree after picking it out, next to his son Waylon at Tucker Tree Farm in Salem, Oregon.
Ryan Swader, Salem, loads a Christmas tree after picking one out. He is pictured here with his son Waylon at Tucker Tree Farm, Salem, Oregon. Photograph: Alisha Jucevic/Reuters

Furrow Farm, a Hillsboro, Oregon Christmas tree farm that includes an 80-acre Christmas tree plantation, was co-owned by Dana Furrow. She said that they had only planted their seedlings weeks prior to the heatwave, which occurred when temperatures reached well over 100F. By the time the heatwave hit, her crops were in the midst of early growth – a very sensitive period.

The farm lost thousands of seedlings and nearly all of its Noble fir trees.

“It definitely hurts because you’ve already put the cost of the seedlings, the labor, the time, working the fields. I mean it’s a lot,” she said. “Christmas trees are a very labor-intensive crop. So, you lose all of that and you don’t get that back.”

According to Bob Schaefer (its general manager), Noble Mountain Tree Farm, a wholesaler in Salem, had about 4,000 acres of land and sold more than half a billion trees annually. It lost approximately 280,000 seedlings. In the same year, more than 25% of Noble fir trees, its primary species, were unsellable.

He said that they’re looking at having to do a lot of replanting and additional fertilizing in an effort to help the new trees catch up to the other seedlings. For this season, they’ve had to give their retailers the option of either receiving fewer trees or taking other species.

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truck carries christmas trees
Noble Mountain Tree Farm, Salem, harvests Christmas trees Photograph: Alisha Jucevic/Reuters

Full damage could ‘take years’ to be felt

Overall, consumers have not felt any significant impact. Some businesses have priced their trees slightly higher, while others haven’t been able to offer the variety of species they have in years past.

Norby stated that inventory was down 5% to 10% in the state, but clarified there was no shortage.

“You want a Christmas tree, they’re out there,” he said. “But, you know, here’s the thing, we should be embracing Christmas tree growers. And what you might get is a slightly damaged tree, you know, a tree that’s expressing some of the signs of this global warming event.”

Chal Landgren is an Oregon State University Extension Christmas tree specialist. He believes that the true impact of the storms might not be felt for many years. He pointed out that most of the damage was to seedlings, as Christmas trees mature in six to ten years.

“We’re going to just have to watch, you know, we’ll know when that date gets closer. But there’s gonna be this kind of gap from the damage from this year, in eight years,” he said.

Ryerson has already begun to make changes to his Medford farm following the heatwave. In October, they planted a fresh batch of seedlings – months earlier than normal – in hopes that the rain would help their root systems. He has also begun to look for additional nutrients that could help to protect his crops.

But after this year’s devastation and watching his house and some of his trees burn down in 2019, those changes may simply not be enough.

“If I have another year like this year, I probably have to go out of business,” he said, “just because you work so hard to get them grown and all of a sudden they die – well, what’s the point?”

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