November 29, 2006 | By: Carol Lea Spence
LEXINGTON, KY.

It’s a crisp day in December – not too cold, not too warm. And if you’re lucky, there’s a sudden flurry of lacy snowflakes dusting the branches of the evergreens all around you. It’s a scene right out of Currier and Ives and it still exists today as families choose their Christmas trees at farms all around Kentucky.

As an alternative crop, Christmas trees are a good use of land and offer a solid return on the initial investment, said Deborah Brooks Hill, University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension forestry professor. However, while the environmental benefits from planting trees may be felt relatively quickly, the scene described above, with its accompanying financial return to the farmer, can be five to seven years down the line.

To compensate for those startup years without income, Hill suggests that farmers may want to rethink the traditional plantation style Christmas tree farm, with its row upon row of trees that may produce as many as 1,000 per acre. By interspersing fewer trees with land reserved for crops, there is less potential for disease and pest infestations and more opportunity for a steady income from an annual crop.

“Anytime you have a monoculture, you’re setting yourself up for a problem,” Hill said. “As soon as you get a large mass of the same thing, whatever likes it is going to show up.”

To avoid those problems, Hill said that farmers could take some of their land and plant an annual crop between belts composed of two or three rows of trees. With this method, a farmer may only be able to plant 250 trees on an acre, so it would take four acres to grow what one acre would under the old method.

“But in the meantime, you’ve got income coming off that land every year,” Hill said. “So if you pay a little more for your seedlings, economically it begins to balance out because you don’t have land that’s tied up not producing any income.”

Another aspect of agroforestry is silvopasture. The shift to rotational grazing in the cattle industry has many farmers dividing their pasture into paddocks with permanent fencing. This provides a farmer with another opportunity to diversify.

“My idea for silvopasture is to plant trees on your fence lines,” Hill said. “You’ve already got a line there. You’ve already got a barrier there for the animals. Plant trees along it. … If you’d like to get some income back on a tree, Christmas trees would be a great idea.”

The industry is also seeing some shifts in the kinds of trees grown in the state. Scots (or Scotch) pine has long been a staple in the industry in Kentucky, primarily because of its swift growth habit and low initial investment. However, people are discovering that the species is highly susceptible to a needlecast disease, which causes the needles to fall off. Hill said she no longer recommends Scots pine because she thinks “the potential for problems is greater than the value of growing trees that will grow fast.”

White pine is still a good option for Kentucky farmers, as it is native in many parts of the state. However, because its slender branches do not support heavier glass ornaments, it may not be among the most popular varieties for consumers.

“Hands down everyone recognizes that a Fraser fir is the Cadillac of Christmas trees,” Hill said, “but very few of the growers have been successful growing it here in Kentucky.”

Hill said that’s because Kentucky has neither the latitudinal nor the altitudinal advantage the species requires. Other firs, such as Concolor fir and Canaan fir (a balsam-Fraser cross), have been tried by Kentucky farmers with some success. Douglas-fir, though not a true fir, is also a popular tree on Kentucky plantations.

“What’s neat about some of the firs is they grow like cones, so it’s fairly easy to keep them shaped as a Christmas tree,” she said. “It’s nowhere near the work that it is for the pines that might decide to throw their branches out in any direction” and must be pruned to give them the desired Christmas tree shape.

According to the Kentucky Christmas Tree Association, a nonprofit organization created to promote the industry in the state, Norway spruce, white spruce and Colorado blue spruce are also grown in Kentucky. However, Hill said the Norway spruce “is kind of iffy because it depends a lot on when it’s cut and how it’s cut” as to whether or not it will drop its needles.

Farmers are always experimenting with new varieties. Hill said that farmers have to keep trying new things to see what will work for them.

“If they (the trees) do survive, that’s one thing. If they flourish, that’s a whole other thing. So you try it – 25 trees or whatever,” she said.

If a farmer decides to try tree farming, Hill advocates that they start small because it requires a different type of planning and organizing than they might be used to.

Marketing and advertising play an important role when finding a market for Christmas trees. Many farmers are foregoing the wholesale route to sell directly to the consumer on site. Tying it to an agritourism enterprise, some farmers are selling an experience by offering gift and coffee shops, hay rides and the opportunity to enjoy an old-fashioned afternoon in the country. But Hill advises that all of that takes additional time and labor on the part of the farmer.

“For farmers who are used to putting in a crop, knowing that they were going to get a fixed amount of money for that crop, or if anything happened to that crop that they’d get paid anyway, it’s a whole different thing. It (growing Christmas trees) is much more out of the box, off the map, outside the lines kind of thing,” she said.

Hill emphasized the importance of trees in the agricultural landscape. As a long-term crop, trees provide many “hidden” advantages, among them environmental benefits such as protecting the soil and conserving water.

“Right now we’re really trying to encourage people to get involved,” Hill said, “because it still is a good return on an investment and it’s a good use of land.”

More information about the Kentucky Christmas tree industry is available through your county Extension office or the Kentucky Christmas Tree Association.

Contact: 

Deborah Hill, 859-257-7610