‘Species on the edge’: NC Christmas tree industry faces climate challenges | Local News

‘Species on the edge’: NC Christmas tree industry faces climate challenges | Local News

Evergreens line the slopes of Joe Freeman’s Ashe County farm like a regiment of soldiers in tight formation.

N.C. State Extension Christmas tree specialist Jeff Owen, right, looks over a bed of seedlings with Joe Freeman, during a visit to Freeman’s Mistletoe Meadows Choose and Cut Farm in Laurel Springs. Freeman, starts thousands of Christmas tree seedlings on raised bed at his Mistletoe Meadows Choose and Cut Farm in Laurel Springs. Using raised beds is one way to prevent the fungus-like organism, Phytophthora, from infecting his trees through water runoff.

They stand at attention in precise, terraced columns of uniform green, awaiting their eventual deployment as holiday staples.

But as sunlight burns through the light mountain haze on a warm afternoon, there are interruptions to the carefully cultivated symmetry at Mistletoe Meadows Christmas Tree Farm, just as there are at hundreds of others like it in the state. Blotches of brown dot some of the lowest rows of the farm’s signature Fraser firs, signaling an invasion by what has become the arch enemy of North Carolina’s $115 million Christmas tree industry.

N.C. State Christmas Trees

Fraser firs that are suspected to have died because of Phytophthora root rot are seen at the base of a hill at Mistletoe Meadows Choose and Cut Farm in Laurel Springs. The fungus-like organism threatens the industry. Once the soil is infected, firs can never be planted there again. Phytophthora often affect trees and the base of hills where drainage is poor.

It is Phytophthora, a root-attacking fungus that is especially harmful to Fraser firs, which account for 94% of Christmas trees grown commercially in the state. Not only does Phytophthora kill the trees, it also makes the soil it inhabits unsuitable for ever growing Fraser firs again.

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What’s worse, says Freeman, is that Phytophthora has a powerful ally in its offensive on the mountain farm he’s owned for 34 years in Laurel Springs, just a few miles north of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Rising temperatures tied to climate change.

N.C. State Christmas Trees

The Upper Mountain Research Station’s CoFirGE (Collaborative Fir Germplasm Evaluation) site. A variety of firs from around the world are integrated with North American fir species to evaluate how these different species grow in different parts of the country. Similar sites are planted in Oregon, Washington, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Connecticut. Issues like climate, pests, weeds, could all be seen across species planted side by side.

“There’s no question that it’s warmer here than it used to be,” Freeman says as he dabs at the sweat on his forehead with the back of his weathered right hand. “It shouldn’t be this warm right now. So if you put a pot of water on the stove, it’s going to boil. We’re going to have more rain.”

And more rain means consistently wetter soil below Freeman’s roughly 200,000 trees, which range from newly planted saplings that spent their first few years in soil beds to decade-old firs ready for the fall harvest.

It’s the ideal atmosphere for moisture-loving Phytophthora.

N.C. State Christmas Trees

N.C. State Extension Christmas tree specialist Jeff Owen explains the work that is being done on Fraser fir research at the Upper Mountain Research Station in Laurel Springs. Genetically enhanced Fraser cuttings are grafted to root stock from a Canaan fir, which has a more vigorous root system, adjusts better to weather extremes and is more resistant to disease.

“It’s spreading rampantly now and I don’t see a way to control it,” Freeman says.

That threat has inspired Freeman and other Fraser fir farmers in North Carolina to employ innovative strategies to protect their prize crop from the thriving fungus.

“We’re going to have to try to modify the tree,” he insists.

Rare habitat

The full, sculpted Fraser specimens we sort through on local pop-up lots are a far cry from most of their typically scrubbier native siblings, whose natural range is at elevations at and above 5,000 feet.

Frasers are grown commercially at lower mountain elevations on farms like Freeman’s, which is at about 3,000 feet. But raising those crops successfully outside their natural habitat requires constant care.

N.C. State Christmas Trees

Brad Edwards, program assistant with N.C. State Extension Service, smells the fragrance of needles from a tree within a stand of firs planted to highlight the different scents at the Upper Mountain Research Station in Laurel Springs.

“Each tree gets ‘touched’ six to eight times a year,” says Brad Edwards, program assistant for the N.C. State Cooperative Extension who works extensively with growers in Ashe County, the nation’s largest producer of Christmas trees. “It’s all about keeping those trees going and whatever they need, whether we’re fighting the grass or putting fertilizer down or spraying for bugs or we’re shearing them.”

That means Freeman’s farm employees — mostly from Mexico and in the country on work visas — interact with the crop more than a million times a year.

“They’re not just going into the woods and cutting down trees,” Edwards explains. “There’s a lot of misconception about how much work gets done or not done, but these guys start working in the middle of March and they work every day, until we cut these trees down (in November).”

‘Unique climate criteria’

Native Frasers, which can grow to heights of up to 80 feet, are found exclusively near the tallest mountain peaks in southwest Virginia, western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee.

N.C. State Christmas Trees

Fraser fir trees in the seed orchard at the Upper Mountain Research Station in Laurel Springs have been grafted on to other fir species that are less susceptible to Phytophthora root rot and climate change. The area around the tree is also kept free of other plants that compete for water.

The highest natural habitat for Fraser firs is North Carolina’s Mt. Mitchell, which tops out at 6,684 feet and is the tallest point east of the Mississippi River.

“Their range has historically been limited because of their fairly unique climate criteria,” Corey Davis, assistant state climatologist at the N.C. State Climate Office, says of Fraser firs.

They need cool, moist conditions overall, with average summertime temperatures of 60 degrees or less and annual rainfall of at least 75 inches, he explains.

“When you look at maps of average summer temperatures and annual precipitation, there is a very narrow set of locations that meet both criteria,” Davis adds.

Other than the Appalachians, the Cascade Range in Oregon — home to Douglas and Noble firs, the favorite choices for Christmas trees in the western U.S. — is the only area in the U.S. with the same climatological conditions.

“Even including those other species, that still leaves a tiny part of the country where Christmas trees can grow, and not much wiggle room as those climate conditions change,” Davis says.

N.C. State Christmas Trees

N.C. State Extension Christmas tree specialist Jeff Owen holds a young cone as he explains the work that is being done on Fraser fir research at the Upper Mountain Research Station in Laurel Springs. Consumers rarely see the fir’s cones as they are trimmed off in the shaping of the tree.

He points to Grandfather Mountain, where native Frasers thrive, as an example of how warming tied to climate change is impacting their habitat.

From 1991 to 2020, the average summertime temperature on the mountain was 63.2 degrees. That was more than 2 degrees above the summer average for the last three decades of the 20th century.

Grandfather also is experiencing a significant increase in the number of summer days when the high temperature reaches at least 80 degrees.

“That sort of warmth is driving up the summer average temperatures, potentially beyond the Fraser fir’s comfort zone,” Davis says.

Warming temperatures fueled by climate change have prompted foresters to study how the ranges of some tree species — including the loblolly pine, which also is native to the Southeast and used primarily for timber — will likely shift northward.

“That’s really not an option for Christmas tree growers, though,” Davis explains. “Even if the future climate gets a little wetter, it will be tough to find (other) areas that are wet enough, while still being cool enough.”

A relatively small number of non-Fraser species of Christmas trees whose habitats are not as limited are grown and sold at lower-elevation “choose and cut” farms.

‘On the borderline’

When it comes to Fraser firs, it’s not just incremental warming that worries North Carolina Christmas tree farmers.

Wider swings in precipitation and temperature tied to climate change pose potential threats, explains Jeff Owen, an N.C. State Cooperative Extension specialist who has spent decades studying Christmas trees and working closely with farmers who grow them.

“You aim for average conditions with your crops,” he says. “When nature throws you a curveball, you have to adapt.”

In 2020, for example, more than 120 inches of rain drenched the area around Freeman’s farm — considerably more than the ideal 75 inches.

“That turns it into a temperate rain forest,” Owen says. “Nobody ever saw water like that in their memory.”

Climate-driven variability in seasonal weather also makes Christmas trees more vulnerable to irreparable harm.

“Let’s say you go from eight months when a fungus thrives to 10 months when a fungus thrives,” Owen suggests. “It’s not like all of a sudden you have a bunch of new problems. It’s just that the problems you have are subject to changing weather.”

Trees that break their winter dormancy because of an early spring warm snap can suffer permanent damage from a subsequent freeze. In an industry where customers expect near perfection, the financial consequences of a physically compromised crop can be considerable.

Fraser fir farmers are adaptable by nature, since they already are raising the species below its preferred elevation. But that resiliency only goes so far.

“At some point, when catastrophic events pile on top of each other, it becomes overwhelming to any system,” Owen says. “I don’t really have an answer for that and I can’t really manage for that. But I can deal with one problem at a time.”

The North Carolina Climate Science Report, published in 2020 by the N.C. Institute for Climate Studies, concluded that the state can expect increasingly warm nights, more days with extreme heat and heavier rainfall.

While Phytophthora has affected North Carolina Fraser firs since the 1960s, those kinds of intensifying weather conditions will continue to enhance its habitat, experts say.

While the frequency and intensity of rain is expected to increase, continued warming also will speed evaporation and create conditions that make wildfires more likely, the North Carolina Climate Science report also predicted.

Those blazes could threaten the state’s 40,000 acres of Christmas tree farms.

In Oregon, the only state with a bigger Christmas tree industry than North Carolina’s, growers experienced considerable losses in June 2021 when extreme heat scorched their crops. Some farms lost all of their young seedlings, which will mean an eventual year or more without a full tree harvest.

“So, is that once in 20 years?” Owen asks about climate-related extreme conditions. “We can handle that. Is it every year? Now we’ve started getting into a situation where you don’t even get through the crop cycle.”

Custom ‘Cadillac’

Just across N.C. 88 from Joe Freeman’s farm, at the N.C. Department of Agriculture’s 454-acre Upper Mountain Research Center, Owen and other experts are continuing their long-running quest to engineer the best possible Christmas trees.

The primary lab for their work is an inconspicuous 5.5 acre stand of small firs, some of which barely resemble what most of us would consider a Christmas tree.

In this case, looks are deceiving, says Edwards, the extension service assistant.

“This is the most advanced Fraser fir orchard in the world,” he proclaims with an unapologetic air of pride. “This is our future, right here.”

The firs in the field represent decades of work to — as Freeman, the Mistletoe Meadows Farm owner put it — “modify the tree.”

At the research center, that means genetically modifying trees to improve needle retention, smell and other characteristics important to consumers. However, the culmination of researchers’ decades-long work involves combining the most desirable characteristics of two species to create a single, superior tree.

Owen points out an irregularly shaped six-foot specimen that even Charlie Brown would take a pass on. It is the product of a genetically enhanced Fraser cutting grafted to root stock from a Canaan fir, which has a more vigorous root system, adjusts better to weather extremes and is more resistant to disease.

The result is a Fraser fir — already considered the “Cadillac of Christmas trees,” Edwards notes — with the durability of a Canaan.

“Nationwide, there’s a lot of different species of Christmas trees sold,” he says. “But the Fraser fir is by far the favorite because it’s got stronger branches, it’s got a really good smell to it and it drops fewer needles than all the others.”

The trees in this orchard amount to custom Cadillacs outfitted with after-factory components. The seeds their female cones produce will lead to a generation of more-resilient Fraser firs.

“We’re just on the (elevation) borderline of being able to grow Frasers and that’s why Phytophthora is a big issue,” Edwards says. “We can grow them. And we’re really lucky we can grow them. But if things change, a lot of us have concerns. It’s already a species on the edge in its natural range. It has nowhere else to go.”

In the research station orchard, Owen turns away from the trees and looks across the road to a section of Fraser firs on Joe Freeman’s farm. He grabs his wide-brimmed hat as a gust of wind nearly blows it from his head, then points to the spattering of lifeless brown trees that have already lost the battle to Phytophthora but remain as markers for the now compromised soil that once sustained them.

“He’ll keep planting trees there until he can’t,” Owen says matter-of-factly.

In the meantime, he adds, the quest will continue for Christmas trees that meet the high expectations of customers while surviving the threats posed by climate change and other environmental challenges.

“But that kind of ignores the worst-case scenario,” Owen concedes. “At some point, the truth is, who cares about a Christmas tree? If the world’s burning up, we’re not going to be worrying about where the next Christmas tree is coming from. But until that day, we can keep Christmas trees in somebody’s living room.”

John Deem covers climate change and the environment in the Triad and Northwest North Carolina. His work is funded by a grant from the 1Earth Fund and the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.