"O, N.C. Christmas Tree!"
Growing a Christmas tree takes "a special kind of crazy," says Bill Glenn. "It takes nine or ten years to grow the product, it has value for only a few weeks, and then it isn't any good for anything else." But hundreds of farmers in Western North Carolina are in the business of growing Christmas trees, and by most accounts they're faring well economically. The iconic Christmas tree -- a prominent annual fixture of countless homes across the nation in the period between Thanksgiving and the New Year -- represents a remarkably significant part of North Carolina's sustained economic engine.
From his office at the WNC Farmers Market in Asheville, Bill Glenn handles marketing for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Referring to the United States Department of Agriculture publicaton 2017 Census of Agriculture, Glenn says that North Carolina harvested "just under 4,032,000 Christmas trees in a year." That figure represents a staggering 26.7% of all Christmas tree production in the United States.
The primary market for North Carolina-grown Christmas trees is the Southeastern U.S, especially Florida. But those trees are shipped all over the country. "We ship to every state in the nation," says Jennifer Greene. "We even have growers who ship to Mexico, Canada, Venezuela and Guatemala." It's Greene's business to know this sort of thing. Since 2009, Jennifer Greene has served as executive director for the North Carolina Christmas Tree Association, the Boone-based organization representing many of the 860 growers across the state.
Quoting from that USDA report, Bill Glenn says that North Carolina's share of Christmas tree sales in 2017 was in the range of $86.7 million. He points out that that activity spurs additional revenue statewide. "I'm not an accountant," he emphasizes with a relieved chuckle, "but I've seen economic impact figures up to a quarter billion dollars off of that."
It certainly wasn't always so. The Fraser fir -- North Carolina's primary Christmas tree crop -- only took its place in recent years as America's most popular choice. "Even when I moved to North Carolina in 1991, Fraser fir was still kind of on the 'other' list of trees," Glenn says. Things changed in less than a generation. "In 2017," Glenn announces with visible pride. "one out every four Christmas trees harvested in the United States was a North Carolina-grown Fraser fir."
The Fraser fir: America's Christmas tree
Several factors combine to help explain the growth of the North Carolina Fraser fir market. From the supply side, Glenn says that "it has a number of really good characteristics, especially its needle retention and the way it holds up on retail lots." A species native to the Appalachian region, the Fraser (botanically known as Abies fraseri) isn't noted among the easiest trees to grow, but conditions in the mountains of Western North Carolina are well suited to the tree.
Owing to its popularity, if every farmer could grow Frasers, they probably would. "Fraser fir is very particular about where it will grow, and it can be a pain," Glenn says. "Because you might plant a field and they won't perform well." Agricultural know-how is essential. "If they weren't difficult to grow, there wouldn't be any money in growing them," he points out.
The conditions -- elevation, temperature and rainfall, to name just three -- that make a particular plot suitable for growing Frasers are often limited to steep land. "It's a combination of microclimate, internal soil drainage and some of the nutrients that are available in the soil," Glenn says. "I've seen them growing well anywhere from 2400 to 5500 feet elevation." He notes that in those cases they're almost always farmed trees. In nature, he says, Fraser firs are only found at 5,000 feet or higher.
Frasers grow in the wild in relatively few locations in North Carolina. "Just a few places in the Smokies, down in the Richland Balsams, a few around Craggy Gardens, and up on Mount Mitchell," Glenn says. Beyond the state's borders, he says "you'll find a few [in Tennessee] up on the very peak of Roan Mountain, then on up around Mount Rogers in Virginia." The Fraser's rarity is part of its specialness. "I'm convinced that if Fraser fir was not cultivated for Christmas trees, it would be a threatened species," Glenn says. "That's one of the reasons we like it, and like it being so successful. It's our baby."
Ashe County north of Boone is arguably the epicenter of the Christmas tree farming world. "Ashe is the leading Christmas tree growing county in the United States," Glenn says. "They cut close to 1.9 million trees up there in 2017." Of those one-in-four Christmas trees that come from the Tar Heel state, some 60% are grown in Ashe County. "That's almost one in every eight farmed Frasers in the country," he says. Even though the Fraser only thrives only in a small area of the state, it has gained quite a foothold among farmers even beyond Ashe County. "We've got about 50 million trees right now in the ground," Glenn says, a figure that represents land use of about 38,000 acres.
Still, there are other varieties of Christmas trees grown in North Carolina. Jennifer Greene ticks off a list from memory. "Canaan fir, Concolor fir, Nordmann fir, Turkish fir, blue spruce, Norway spruce, white pine, Virginia pine, Scotch pine ... and there some some cedar and cypress Christmas trees," she says. But Frasers have cornered that market: more than 94% of all species grown in North Carolina are Frasers.
A growing business
The reasons for the Fraser fir's rarity also pose challenges for growers. "That's why I don't complain too much about some of the things that limit where we can grow them," Glenn says. "They're in a lot of places where you can't mechanize very much. You have to do a lot of hand work. That six-foot tree that you'll see on a retail lot has been visited by the grower a hundred times or more before it ever gets to your house."
But growing trees on a farm is further limited by availability of land, especially in Western North Carolina. Glenn says that the Great Smoky Mountains are in fact "ground zero" for the Fraser fir. "They would grow extremely well there," he says. "But that's protected land. The farther you go up the spine of the mountains, the more potentially good fir land is still in private hands."
When starting a Christmas tree farm, the land has to be cleared. But in the Spring when it comes time for replanting, most growers with established farms take a different approach. "You can go in and try to work the stumps out, and then reset," Glenn explains. "But most growers go back in and literally plant next to the stump from last year's harvest. You've got rows marked; you did all that work the first time. So you just move over six inches off the stump and plant again."
But won't the farmers eventually run out of usable land? "It hasn't happened yet," Glenn replies with a laugh. "Fraser fir's a pretty soft wood, so the stumps rot out pretty quickly."
One of the ways in which farmers have managed to shorten the time from planting to harvest -- and to improve the yield of tress suitable for sale -- is by taking the beginning part of the process indoors. In years past, maturity took 12 to 14 years, says Glenn. "But now we're starting to grow our seedlings in greenhouses rather than outside in seedbeds," he explains. "So what used to take five years to produce just a little tree to take to the field now is more like two. And we've also improved our cultural practices; now we're getting a six-foot tree in a seven year rotation instead of waiting eight to nine years."
Those seedlings are available from a variety of sources. "We've got some out-of-state growers who are producing trees in greenhouses," Glenn says. The North Carolina Forest Service has greenhouses of its own for producing seedlings, too. "And a number of our own growers produce their own seedlings," he says. They use those on their own farm and/or sell to other growers.
Jack Wiseman is the owner and winemaker at Linville Falls Winery. He's also the patriarch of Red Barn Tree Farm, part of the winery's operations. Wiseman -- who was profiled in a December 2016 feature in Capital at Play -- started growing Christmas trees on the property in 1968; these days a choose-and-cut retail operation is part of the business as well.
Wiseman's farm is one of those that is involved in the growing of its own seedlings. "We have our own seed that we have grafted onto our local root stock," he explains. "We have what we call genetically improved seed that we have developed over about almost 50 years." That seed eventually yields a faster-growing, more uniformly growing Fraser fir.
"We collect our seed then we ship it to Weyerhauser in Shelton, Washington," Wiseman explains. "They freeze it, and then they plant [a designated] number every spring in greenhouses." Each seed goes in its own cell measuring 1-1/2" diameter by about six inches deep. Once that seed is sprouted, it grows one year in the greenhouse, at which point it's about five inches tall. At that point, Weyerhauser workers take the seedlings and plant them outdoors, where they spend another one to two years growing. "When we receive the transplant that we plant, it's usually three years old," Wiseman says. "And it's probably 16-18 inches tall." Growing those seedlings in that manner increases the overall success rate of trees once they're planted, Jennifer Green points out.
Planting a parcel is relatively straightforward process, Wiseman says. "First, you have to have the transplants available, and you have to have land that's cleared and unobstructed." Most farmers use machinery to plant the seedling on 5-foot centers. At that rate, an acre of land can support 1500 trees. "We just plant until the seedlings are gone or until we finish the acreage," Wiseman says.
Those young seedlings need a lot of water, and the facilities for growing them make use of irrigation. Once they're planted in the High Country of western North Carolina, nature pretty much takes care of supplying the water that the trees need to thrive. Their maximum need or water tapes off greatly by July. "After that point, they harden off and they go dormant," Glenn says. "Once the trees are established, they're very drought tolerant." He recalls the 2016 season. By October of that year, "we hadn't had any rain in about 12 weeks. But we had one of the best harvest seasons we've ever had; the dry weather really doesn't hurt harvest."
That perfect conical shape that's associated with Christmas trees doesn't happen by itself. "Nature does very little of that," Glenn explains. "Fraser firs do all of their growing in late May and June." Starting every year around mid-July, growers are on the farms, clippers in hand. "They're shaping the trees with a 16-inch shearing knife -- it looks like serrated edge straight razor -- cutting the new growth off all the way around to get the exact shape they want."
The earlier each season that the trimming is done, the better, because the "bud set" for the following year can start sooner. Do it too late and blobs of sap will appear at the cut ends. "A big part of shearing the trees is both to get the right shape and to encourage bud set for next year," Glenn says. "Folks will wait until the trees are two to three years in the field before they start trimming them. But after that point, you're out there trimming them every year until they're a harvestable size."
From farm to market
By early October, most all growers have their inventory complete and the orders booked. By that time, "they've been out tagging trees by sizes, by whether the tree is suitable. And they match that up to their inventory." But Glenn says that demand always outpaces supply. "Frankly, we could sell severally more trees than we will have this year." He says that a grower who somehow cut down "too many" trees would have no trouble at all selling them.
The business of Christmas tree growing is very much a "hurry up and wait" endeavor, even more so than many other kinds of farming. "We start harvest very slowly on November 1 if the weather is cold, Jack Wiseman says. He knows his land well, having farmed it for more than a half century now. And here the steep mountainsides provide a built-in advantage. "We have staging areas that the sun never hits," he explains. "We stand up the cut trees in those staging lots in large numbers." By "large," Wiseman is speaking of up to 80,000 trees in each of several staging areas.
Years of experience have led to organization that displays almost military precision. "We have the different sizes all separated with color-coded ribbon," Wiseman says. "So, when it comes shipping time -- mid-November -- we know the sizes without having to measure." Once shipping starts, trees that have been harvested about 10 days before are strapped down on pallets. "We cover those pallets with burlap so they never see the sun," Wiseman says.
Red Barn Tree Farm schedules its shipments so that all of its retail customers will be fully stocked by Thanksgiving. And Wiseman says that they continue shipping to maintain full stock through the middle of December. "The golden day to ship is the Monday before Thanksgiving," says Bill Glenn. "The traditional beginning of the season is the Friday after Thanksgiving. Of course that's a moving target."
Secondary products represent a healthy percentage of tree growers' business as well. Glenn says that perhaps 10% of growers' income derives from those sales. "There's another $6-10 million in wreaths, garlands, swags and that kind of thing," he says. "You could find every kind of metal form: candy canes, bow ties, you name it." And those ancillary products require comparatively more labor to bring them to market. "There's labor to get the greenery off of the stump or secondary trees, and then labor to trim it up into the exact size to go into the wreath," he says. "There's a lot more that goes into it. And it takes skilled labor to get really good-looking product."
Estimating demand is critical for North Carolina growers. And for that, one might think they would look to the state's Department of Agriculture. "I'd like to take a lot of credit for it," Glenn says with a chuckle. "But the fact is that the growers that have a pretty good grip on it. We planted too many trees in the late '90s, and it took almost 20 years to sort through all of that. But we've been planting a pretty consistent number since the early 2000s."
'Tis the season for workers
North Carolina's Christmas tree growers rely on the Federal government's H-2A program for seasonal workers. Bill Glenn says that "a significant" portion of the 5000 people employed in the industry statewide -- that's full- and part-time -- are foreign nationals working legally as Temporary Agricultural Workers. The harvesting season is very short, so a large labor force is needed to bring trees from farm to market. "You have to have the labor right then and there," Jennifer Greene says. "And if it's late, delayed by regulatory issues, that just totally messes you up for your entire harvest season. Because you've got a two month window."
Many of those workers are needed again in the Spring for planting, though. "There's not a whole lot to do on the farm between late December and March," Glenn says with a chuckle. "But the workers come back in March, ready to have at it again." Growers keep an eye on long-term weather trends so that they can begin planting. "You don't want to be so early that ground freezes and pushes the seedlings back up out of the ground. But as soon as the danger of that has passed, go ahead and get them in the ground; let them get a good root system going."
A community of growers
Bill Glenn credits the North Carolina Christmas Tree Association's effort as the primary driver of the Fraser's success in the marketplace. "They do an incredible job of promoting Fraser fir," he says. "Right at 29 years ago, they refocused all of their promotions toward North Carolina grown Fraser, and it's paid off."
"Whether you're in Washington State or Pennsylvania or Michigan, we all make a living doing almost identical work and farming," Jack Wiseman says. "We do have a whole lot in common." And computer-based inventorying, estimation and improvements in logistics have helped change the Christmas tree business. Today it looks very little like it did a half century ago. "It's all so much faster, Wiseman says. "It's all much more well managed than it was in those early years; it's quite a different type business now."
Competitors and other pests
North Carolina growers face some -- but not a great deal of -- competition from growers in the Pacific Northwest. But the tree varieties are different. "Noble fir is the predominant species in the Northwest," Glenn says. "Fraser firs don't do particularly well out there, because their cycle is such that it's hard to get a good straight top. And we have the exact same problem with Noble fir in the Southeast."
Jennifer Greene says that North Carolina Christmas tree growers' biggest competitor is China. "Artificial trees," she explains. Her association endeavors to "promote and educate" consumers as to the benefits of real trees. "Christmas trees are a completely renewable, recyclable resource," she says. "They help stabilize the soil, and provide refuge for wildlife. They're grown by American farmers; they're not produced overseas in factories contributing to pollution."
The federal government lends a hand in getting those messages across. The National Checkoff Program is a suite of more than 20 USDA-administered marketing efforts that promote specific commodities. Slogans like, "Beef: It's what's for dinner," "The incredible edible egg" and "Got milk?" are all examples of Checkoff programs, paid for in part by fees assessed to producers. Signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2014, the Christmas Tree Promotion Board started its work in 2014. "They promote and spread that message about real Christmas trees," Greene says. Those efforts emphasize the environmental angle, positioning real, domestic trees as vastly superior to plastic imported ones.
But more of a threat to the trees themselves are a number of environmental factors. "It's a constant battle as far as different diseases," Greene says. She says that North Carolina growers are closely watching the spotted lantern fly, an insect that threatens grapevines, tree fruit and woody ornamentals. The fly has been found in New York, Delaware, New Jersey and Virginia. Greene emphasizes that the spotted lantern fly isn't an indigenous species. "It came from China on a load of imported rocks," she explains. "We're constantly battling things like that, because as more things are imported, you're dealing with the risk of importing pests that could be harmful to any crop."
Another insect that can damage Fraser firs is the balsam woody adelgid. "It's a problem in the native stands," says Bill Glenn. "But it's very manageable in a cultivated environment." Tree growers are careful to minimize the use of chemical pesticides, too. "It's a lot less than you would think," Greene says. Some estimates place the amount of chemicals that find their way onto a Christmas tree grown in North Carolina at around a tablespoon over the course of its entire eight to 12 year growing period.
For Christmas tree growers in North Carolina, smart budgetary decisions often dovetail with responsible environmental practices. "Our growers use integrated pest management," Glenn says. "They're out there scouting, and they don't treat until a problem reaches an economic threshold. Insecticides and herbicides are expensive. Using the absolute minimum makes economic sense as well as environmental sense."
The same thinking holds true for the use of fertilizer. "It's expensive," Glenn says. "You don't want to put out any more or any less than the tree needs." Growers do soil testing and use tissue analysis to find out any specific needs that the tree has. Even in years when there's no harvest, farmers still have to maintain the land, watching for insect and weed problems.
When it comes to weeds, Christmas tree farmers don't have the same issues that some other farmers might. "A lot of our growers aren't trying to go for bare ground," Glenn explains. "They try to use low rates of herbicides to stunt the weeds." What often happens is that the ground around the Fraser firs ends up covered in white clover, a species Glenn describes as "about impervious to any herbicide known to man." But it's actually not a problem. "White clover is the perfect ground cover for Christmas trees," he says. "It holds the soil, adds nitrogen to the soil, yet is very sensitive to the shade." That means it grows around the trees, but not under them. "When the tree shades it, there's no competition."
In the hands of consumers
Big-box retailers represent a significant portion of sales for the state's Christmas tree growers, but specific figures are hard to come by. Several years ago a report suggested that orders from Lowe's, Home Depot and the like represented about 40% of the market. "Christmas tree growers hold a lot of that information very dear to themselves," says Jennifer Greene. "They're careful with what they share, like a lot of farmers in general."
Choose-and-cut facilities are perhaps the most prominent and visible Christmas tree farms in the state, but they represent a relatively small percentage of growers. Glenn says that about 150 of the more than 800 growers across North Carolina are set up for consumers to visit, pick a tree, cut it down and take it home.
While some consumers might -- for aesthetic or sustainability reasons -- think about buying a Fraser fir with a root ball, using it in the house for the holidays and then planting it in the yard, that's not likely to go well. "Fraser fir doesn't transplant well, and it doesn't live in most of the places where we ship trees to," Bill Glenn explains. And even if their home is at an elevation suitable for the tree, the time spent indoors will have likely done serious damage. Inside a heated home, "the tree thinks it's springtime," Glenn explains. "The sap starts to move up, and then you set them outside and it's cold ..."
A celebrated consumer: the White House
Among the highest profile Christmas trees are the ones installed each holiday season in the White House. And North Carolina Christmas tree growers have played a major role in that tradition, providing the White House tree 13 times since 1971.
"We take a lot of pride in that, because that's more than any other state in the nation," says Jennifer Greene. But most people don't realize that there's intense competition for the honor. Each state or regional growers' association as a competition of its own. "The winners from those contests are then eligible to compete in the National Christmas Tree Association Contest," she explains. "Two winners are chosen biannually."
The judging is handled by a peer group of growers, and the tradition has gone on since 1966. Judges are looking at specific qualities and measurements. The "handle" (base) of the tree "has to be at least, but no longer than, so many inches." Greene says. "Same with the top of the tree. They look at things like the taper, the way that it's been sheared. And they look for things like density and uniformity of balance."
The winning grower gains the right to deliver its Christmas trees to both the Blue Room at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and the Vice President's residence at Washington D.C.'s Observatory Circle. The most recent winner from North Carolina was Larry Smith of Mountaintop Fraser Fir in Newland.
North Carolina tree growers take the honor -- and the competition -- very seriously. "The next competition will be in the North Carolina high country in 2021," Glenn says. With a sly smile, he adds, "We're already working on some home cooking for that one."Back to Business Main Menu