December 8, 1999 | By: Aimee D. Heald
LEXINGTON, KY

Baldwin farms is nestled on 154 acres in Madison County. Ten of those acres are dedicated to Christmas trees. With 1,000 trees per acre, that adds up to a lot of Christmas trees.

Margery Baldwin and her husband, along with one full-time worker, take care of all the trees, as well as a small cattle herd and some hay. The Baldwins personally know how bad a drought can be; they lost 75 percent of their young tree crop this year.

"We planted about 2,500 trees this year and we probably lost 2,000," Margery said. "I lost count really. It's too hard to keep track; every week we lost a few more and we're still losing trees. We've been through these fields two or three times already, cutting out every dead tree and everytime I go back, I see more dead trees, more damaged trees."

Margery is worried next year will be even worse if Kentucky doesn't get some much needed precipitation over the winter. Deborah Hill, a forest management specialist for the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, said the Baldwins are not alone in their tree losses.

"I've talked to a lot of growers and most of them said they have lost anywhere from 50 to 100 percent of their young trees to the drought," Hill said. "The older trees did pretty well. Trees 3-years-old and up are probably strong enough to withstand it."

Hill emphasized that trees grow slow and because of that, losing one year's crop is not the end of the world for most growers. She said if Kentucky gets some moisture, next year won't be a repeat of 1999, however, without adequate precipitation, 2000 could be a disaster for the Christmas tree industry.

Growers can do a number of things to increase the chances of a tree's survival. Hill stressed the importance of mulching trees heavily at planting time. She said to use a woody material. Although mulching 1,000 trees per acres is labor intensive, it conserves moisture and cools the root system, and the mulch eventually will degrade into something the tree can use.

"This drought is a wake up call to us, about the way we grow our trees," Hill said. "I encourage growers to diversify their plantations by growing more than one species of Christmas tree. Also, it's a good idea to intercrop with other cash crops that will make money when the trees don't."

Seedlings bought from the state Division of Forestry have the roots coated with a gel material that will help the tree retain moisture.

Hill also suggests cutting back on the number of seedlings planted this year.

"Instead of 1,000 new trees, it might be a good idea to only plant 500 this year," she said. "That way you can put more focus into keeping those 500 alive and the loss won't be as great."

One species of tree that could be a good investment for Kentucky growers is the Virginia pine. Hill said it is not usually used as a Christmas tree species, however it might be a good idea to start using it as one. The Virginia Pine is native to Kentucky and also is very drought tolerant. The only drawbacks of this species are rapid growth and more maintenance. Virginia Pines reach marketable height much faster than other species though, so losing one year of growth to drought won't have a large effect on the big picture for this tree.

Margery Baldwin made a decision to buy younger seedlings this year to counteract the effect of the drought.

"We used to plant 4-year-old trees," Margery said. "They are almost a dollar a piece to plant. By the time you add labor and everything involved in getting that tree in ground, we spent about two dollars per tree. So we've gone to a smaller, cheaper tree we can get for about 20 cents each. Planting is easier and faster for those too. If 75 percent of those die it won't hurt as much."

Margery admits she's not in the Christmas tree business to make money. The got into it because they wanted to have a choose-and-cut operation for the public to enjoy year after year.

"We've spent a lot of money; we've made a little money," she said. "We've had a lot of fun doing it and I think we've broken even. To me that's half of it; doing something you love to do." – 30 –

Contact: 

Writer: Aimee D. Heald 606-257-9764

Source: Deborah Hill 606-257-7610