by Ryan Sitler
Sometime after the Thanksgiving holiday Christmas decorations begin to appear in shop windows and front yards, and by mid-December most of the nation is fully engaged in the Christmas decorating spirit. This time of year often makes me reflect on the grave wastefulness of such holidays. Due to this point of view, those around me are highly critical of my “lack of holiday spirit”. My mother accuses me of rejecting traditions inherently and for no good reason, but in trying to prove that I haven’t abandoned a positive outlook on the holidays I can’t argue that what is being witnessed during the holiday season is one of the truest signs that our culture is continuing to move away from anything that could resemble an ecological consciousness. As Aldo Leopold stated in Sand County Almanac, “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
The aim is not to just criticize or to eliminate others’ holiday traditions. My goal is to instill a little human ingenuity into our thinking about holiday traditions that will allow us to move from the 20th century – full of ecological imperialism and destruction – into the 21st century – with the mind’s eye on ecological regeneration and reintegration into human culture. What traditions hold true value and are these built upon the cradle to grave model as William McDonough outlined in Cradle to Cradle? Which can be revamped and which need to be left by the wayside for something better? This is not an easy task, and I certainly don’t presume that I have all of the answers. However, if some of us as individuals take the time to examine and improve our own family traditions, it seems inevitable that others would follow our lead. Customs related to Christmas trees are a perfect example, providing an opportunity for consumers and producers alike to rethink their practices and to push one another towards a healthier industry model without the need to sacrifice traditions.
An Overview of the Christmas Tree Industry
According to statistics published by the USDA and the National Christmas Tree Association, 33 million real Christmas tree were sold during 2012 in the United States. An additional 9.5 million fake trees were sold. The average growing time for a Christmas tree is seven years meaning that there are approximately 350 million Christmas trees currently growing in the US. There have been many journalists who have discussed the carbon footprint of purchasing a live as opposed to an artificial Christmas tree. The conclusions were consistent, and the American Christmas Tree Association has data that shows that if one purchases a plastic tree and keeps it for 10 years the carbon footprint is less than that of the average US citizen purchasing the average Christmas tree each year only to dispose of it. However, this carbon footprint report assumes that the monocultural production of Christmas trees is the only option for producers and that the current model of distribution is a requirement of the industry. Before getting into the ways that our production systems can be improved, it seems important enough to debunk this myth of the fake Christmas tree. Plastic Christmas trees are nothing but a bane to our ecological communities, and in no way is this alternative the best option in response to an unsustainable Christmas tree industry.
As with most crops these days, the current industry standard for growing Christmas trees is to grow them to harvest size, remove the trees, prepare the soil for replanting, and do it all again on the same ground. Along the way some pesticides are applied to combat unwanted insects, fungicides are used to avoid unwanted disease infestations, and synthesized chemical fertilizers are applied to supply the nutrients for tree growth. Healthy and abundant soils are the foundation for growing plants, and the production model described above works toward the depletion of soils. In his book Mycelium Running, Paul Stamets outlines some crude facts about the timber industry in the Pacific Northwest. Many logging companies that own land in that region are selling it because of the diminished returns on successive planting and harvesting of timber after two, three, or four generations. Stamets points out that the loss of topsoil with each generation of planting is the sole cause of the problems that these companies are having when they try to plant and grow out future generations of timber. In short, poor forest management has led to massive degradation of land to produce what the timber industry still unabashedly refers to as a renewable resource.
This is a very salient comparison to Christmas tree growers across the nation. Planting successive generations of tree crops in a monocultural fashion without returning any of the carbon to the system or taking any other steps to rebuild soils will lead to depletion of soils and increased dependence on synthesized materials to allow crops to grow on the same land. So, what can be done that is different? That is to say, what actions can growers and consumers take to promote change in the culture of Christmas trees and the Christmas tree industry?
Efforts Within the Industry
Farmers are the true heroes of our generation. They are the stewards(esses) of our lands, having chosen a life close to our roots, and they produce all of the food and fiber that allow our systems to continue on. At the same time these people endure the push and pull of markets that only leave them needing more. I would certainly not propose that farmers have turned a blind eye on ecology, while it is true that a lot of mainstream agricultural practices operate contrary to ecological processes in search of economic gain. Many in the Christmas tree industry are implementing production practices that improve upon the model of monoculture described above. These growers are not mainstream, however their work is significant to all of us invested in the Christmas spirit.
There are a few websites that have compiled a list of certified organic Christmas tree growers. This is a huge step, as organic certification inherently includes and requires a lot of biodiversity, soil management practices, and restrictions on chemical inputs. However, organic is not a solution in and of itself. Organic certification is just a route that a grower can take to allow consumers to more easily differentiate his/her production practices from another’s. Often, the cost to become and remain a recognized part of the National Organic Program is a limiting factor in seeking certification that leads growers to look for other options. Beyond organic other production tools such as Integrated Pest Management (IPM) are used by some growers to really help them monitor and understand the lifecycle of pests or diseases in order to holistically deal with problems in crop production.
In North Carolina, many Christmas tree growers are utilizing living ground covers. Reports of lessened erosion, increased wildlife habitat, lowered soil temperatures, and harboring of beneficial insects all come from implementing this strategy. The NC Cooperative Extension has been conducting a pollinator study where 75 different plant species have been identified living amongst the ground cover in Christmas tree plots. These plants include important pollen and nectar sources for honey producing insects, many butterfly attractants such as milkweed have been found, and habitats for beneficial predatory insects are also included in this diversity of understory species (Sidebottom). This cognizant approach is beneficial to the individual grower as well as the greater ecological community. As NC Extension continues to research and promote this way of growing Christmas trees, the value of teaming ecological strategies with agricultural practices will surely continue to be uncovered. While organic production and living ground covers are steps towards ecological production, these methods still leave us with trees grown, cut, and replanted in the same fields after each life cycle. It does little to address the massive waste stream of dead trees after each holiday season.
Some growers are beginning to tap into niche market opportunities for selling potted live evergreens, and this may be an opportunity for growers who don’t currently produce Christmas trees to diversify their operation. Consumers can buy these trees, decorate them for the holiday season, and then plant them outside when the holiday comes to an end. When viewed through the lens of the carbon cycle, this option is potentially superior, as long as the living trees aren’t shipped all around nation for sale. These trees are grown for two to four years instead of seven, and when they have served their purpose as a decoration, they can go on to serve an ecological function as a carbon sink, wildlife habitat, and an aesthetic part of the landscape. But even in the live Christmas tree market, little is accomplished to build soils back on the land where these products originated.
Suggestions for Growers
As was previously discussed, there are some growers within the Christmas tree industry that are taking steps to implement more green production models. Using the successes of these folks, other producers can mimic ecological practices to benefit their farms by building soil and biodiversity while also reducing their reliance on chemical inputs. Whether it’s certified organic, IPM, holistic management (Phillips), or some combination of strategies, growers committing to these modes of production would not only benefit their farming operations but also add to the local ecologies and benefit from plugging themselves into the rapidly growing niche market for alternatively produced agriculture products. To take the example from the North Carolina Extension a little further, growers can introduce specific plant communities in between their rows of trees. This method of intentionally intercropping or introducing polyculture would allow producers to diversify their farming enterprises. By growing a combination of pollen and nectar producing plants, habitat for beneficial insects, and other plant crops or even mushrooms that can be harvested and sold, farmers have the opportunity to capitalize on the full acreage being used currently to produce only evergreen trees while also encouraging biodiversity. Perennial crop rotations, where applicable, are another way to ensure the longevity of your soil. Coming back and planting identical, mostly monocultural, plant communities generation after generation will lead to lacking soil quality. Polyculture would allow for multiple tree crops to be grown and rotated amongst the rows over successive generations in a relatively small amount of space. These strategies for adapting Christmas tree production have the potential to increase the value of farm products, create more jobs on the farm by increasing crop production diversity, and they even can boost the potential for tourism if farmers were to choose the route of registering their farms as protectors of endangered plant, insect, or animal species.
Developing new markets is something that established farmers don’t often pursue. In the case of the Christmas tree industry there are two ways that famers can benefit themselves while also creating new potential markets. First, the selling of living Christmas trees has great potential to develop into a major part of the Christmas season. As people and their families begin to understand the value of purchasing a live evergreen then replanting it after the holiday season, there is no doubt that growers would be able to capitalize on new opportunities. The live tree market also has great potential as a regionalized mode of production. Rather than cut trees being shipped across the nation for delivery to retail outlets in big urban centers, smaller growers, greenhouses, and nurseries could market their live trees to a wide variety of retail outlets as well as selling directly to the consumer. Niche market products have no trouble finding their way into stores if the customers are asking for them. This is contrary to the current model of large scale production and distribution of food products, although the increasing popularity and availability of local food would surely tell a story of success when it comes to local producers getting their products into larger conglomerate retail outlets when people ask for them. With some crafty marketing, growers producing live potted Christmas trees could easily sell a story of a new ecological holiday tradition – planting a native evergreen tree as a family after the hustle and bustle of Christmas has gone.
The second way that farmers can benefit from new market strategies in the Christmas tree industry is to implement recycling programs. Organizations like Springs Preserve, in Nevada, provide examples of opportunities for farmers or other organizations to recycle Christmas trees to keep them out of landfills. This becomes a problem particularly in rural areas. The people of Springs Preserve recycled over 3,000 Christmas trees in the first year of their program, 2001. However, this organization, that serves greater Las Vegas, recycled over 17,000 Christmas trees in 2011. This was turned into valuable mulch and woodchips for many different applications while also keeping this massive volume of biological material from entering the landfill. Farmers can certainly use this recycling model to their benefit, whether they grow Christmas trees or not. Specifically though, Christmas tree farmers can use recycling programs to bring back the biomass that was harvested from their very fields. This can easily be chipped and either composted, spread on the ground as mulch around new plantings, used as base material for hugelkultur beds (as described by Sepp Holzer), or used to make biochar. Reintroducing woody material from what was harvested on that land is a great way to ensure the soil isn’t depleted. Using specific fungal communities to speed up the decomposition process (Stamets) can ensure the agricultural viability of the land in the short term by building soil more quickly. Regardless of how the farmer decides to use the Christmas trees, committing to an on-farm recycling program would add value back into his operation. A concern of Christmas tree recycling or composting are the chemicals used during production of the tree being potentially harmful. This is a concern if certain chemicals were used on the plant during its growth. If a producer using ecological methods recycles the trees from his/ her own farm, then the concerns are easily dismissed.
Markets certainly don’t change overnight. It is unrealistic to expect or even to ask growers to do the same. It is probably best for them to implement one or two strategic changes on their operations, testing these against current practices before fully augmenting their current successful production practices. That is why this list of options, certainly not exclusive to additional ideas, is provided as a guide for growers. If in time, some of these strategies were to be taken up by Christmas tree growers, there would be potential to see profit on the triple bottom line, meaning the enterprise would be a boon economically, ecologically, and socially.
Conclusion: Suggestions for Consumers
An entirely different way to influence the production, distribution, or availability of a certain commodity is to act as an informed consumer. Asking for products that aren’t currently offered and buying only what one believes in are great ways for the consumer to decide what is put before them. Organic, local, eco, and green are all buzz words today, and industry is not blind to what’s popular. As consumers we have the ability to influence even producers. If we decide to commit ourselves to buying a Christmas tree, what is the right choice? Size, shape, kind, color, alive, or dead – these are all options that we have as a consumer. None is perfectly moral or amoral, and the beauty is that we have the option to support what we feel is best. In November, ask your nearest garden supply store if they’ll be selling Christmas trees grown in your area. Are there any certified organic available? Contact your local Christmas tree farm or nursery to inquire about their production practices and maybe even about a potted native evergreen to buy for your family holiday tradition. What we ask for and where we spend our money is noticed. In the event that a cut tree is purchased, buy an ecologically produced tree, and make sure to ask the farmer if they have a recycling program or know of one in the area. Better yet, start a biochar business in your hometown from recycled Christmas trees.
It is our own responsibility to question the world around us. As celebrators of a holiday, it is right to reexamine traditions to see if they fit the world that we live in or in the world that we are trying to create. As consumers, we have a responsibility to ask producers and distributors alike to make products available that are healthy for our world. It’s not always comfortable to change, but if you build a new family holiday tradition out of a conscious consumer decision you are working towards something great. Along the way, we can influence younger generations to also think with this ecological awareness when it comes to the things that matter most to them.
Incorporating the ecology of our place into our definitions of community while also incorporating ourselves into the ecology of our place is the only way that humans aren’t going to be kicked out of hotel earth. Hopefully Santa will be amongst those who allow us to keep the room indefinitely.
“Christmas Trees and the Environment.” American Christmas Tree Association. N.p., 2009. Web. 1 Jan. 2013. <http://www.christmastreeassociation.org/christmas-trees-and-the-environment>.
“Christmas Tree Recycling.” Springs Preserve. Springs Preserve, n.d. Web. 3 Jan. 2013. <http://www.springspreserve.org/about/sustainability_treerecycling.html>.
“Christmas Tree Statistics.” Statistics Brain. N.p., 26 Nov. 2012. Web. 1 Jan. 2013. <http://www.statisticbrain.com/christmas-tree-statistics>.
Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac. Toronto: Random House Publishing Group, 1966. Print.
McDonough, William, and Michael Braungart. Cradle to Cradle. New York: North Point Press, 2002. Print.
Phillips, Michael. The Apple Grower. White River Jct., VT: Chelsea Green Press, 2005. Print.
Sidebottom, Jill R. “Pollinator Study.” Pest Control In Frasier Fir Christmas Trees. NC State Cooperative Extension, 7 Nov. 2012. Web. 3 Jan. 2012. <http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/fletcher/programs/xmas/control/pollinator/index.html>.
Stamets, Paul. Mycelium Running. New York: Ten Speed Press, 2005. Print.