Northwest Christmas trees heading overseas
By Eric Mortenson
CORBETT, Ore. — Tom Norby would like to be the first to wish you a merry….
Well, it’s too soon even for him to say that. But if you live in Japan, China, Hong Kong or even Dubai, know that your Christmas tree is on its way. Merry Mid-October.
Pacific Northwest tree growers such as Norby are already cutting, baling and shipping the Nobles, Douglas firs and other varieties that will be decorated in far corners of the globe. Oregon ranks first nationally in Christmas tree production, harvesting roughly 6.5 million trees annually, and Washington is fifth, with about 2.3 million. More than 90 percent of northwest trees leave the region.
“I was sold out in August,” Norby, a former stock trader who counts himself among the region’s small growers, said.
He has about 50 acres of Christmas trees in the Corbett area, a farming community perched on the basalt bluffs overlooking the Columbia River east of Portland.
Christmas trees are simple only in their symbolism.
On this sunny day, a crew of four is loading close to 500 trees, each 5- to 7-feet tall and with limbs tightly trussed, into a refrigerated shipping container sitting atop a truck. Driver Robert Biddulph said he’ll haul the load into Portland to be fumigated – killing Oregon bugs that might be riding along – and then to the small town of Molalla where workers will open the container doors and shoot a layer of shaved ice inside.
“So the trees will all be white,” Biddulph said. The wintry look won’t last, of course, but the ice will provide moisture for the next part of the trees’ journey: Up to Seattle, aboard a freighter, and 22 to 25 days at sea before reaching Singapore, in this case.
It’s a 15-day trip to Hong Kong and 35 days to Dubai, said Tony Tanada, a buyer for HFT International. The Portland company buys from Norby and other growers and ships overseas. Last week it sent eight shipping containers to Hong Kong.
“It’s a huge market,” Tanada said.
Tanada said the trees handle shipment just fine. Upon arrival, workers unbale them, trim the butt and stick them in water. The fresh cut on the bottom of the tree allows it to draw moisture up the trunk.
“They swell right up and they’ll be perfect,” he said.
Who’s buying them at the other end? Expatriates, American business people living overseas and state department employees desiring a touch of home. And increasingly, upscale shopping malls and hotels buy large trees for display.
Biddulph, the driver, said one container he handled this fall carried only eight trees, all 14- to 23-feet tall. Two buyers from Hong Kong came to western Oregon to handpick the trees they wanted cut and shipped, he said.
Norby, the grower, estimates 20 percent of his annual harvest is shipped overseas. He also supplies people who operate Christmas tree lots. He’ll sell about 4,000 trees this year; a big year for him is 11,000 trees. He’s part of the Oregon Christmas Tree Growers Association, a group of relatively small growers who operate primarily in Clackamas County. The Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association represents about 1,000 larger growers in Oregon and Washington.
Oregon requires licenses of anyone growing Christmas trees on more than one acre, said Gary McAninch, who handles the program for the Oregon Department of Agriculture. The number of grower fluctuates with the economy; Oregon has about 600 licensed growers now, the peak was 750.
The agriculture department certifies trees for export, and soon will begin certifying container shipments for Mexico, the biggest export market. Last year, Oregon sent about 2,100 containers of trees to Mexico, at roughly 500 to 600 trees per container. California is by far the biggest domestic market, taking close to half the harvest.
Pacific Rim countries are a growing export market, but growers can run into problems. The state ag department hopes to reduce the number of Christmas tree shipments that are restricted or rejected.
Among the Specialty Crop Block Grants awarded the state this year was $59,000 to conduct targeted training sessions and produce publications on best management practices for export and controlling Christmas tree diseases and pests. The information will be available in printed and digital form, and in English and Spanish.
The cyclical nature of the industry is about to show itself, as Norby and others say Christmas trees may be in short supply in a few years. The recession knocked out some growers, and others cut back on planting. Because trees grow at roughly one foot a year, it takes six to eight years for them to reach harvest size.
“There will be a shortage of trees in two or three years,” Norby said, “and prices will go up.”