Willamette Valley trees have benefited from several days of rain going into harvest, just what Bob Schaefer, general manager of Noble Mountain Tree Farm near Salem, Ore., likes to see.
“Harvestable trees will hang on through the toughest of weather conditions, but it’s nice to have all our needles plumped and fresh going out,” Schaefer said.
Noble Mountain farms 4,000 acres and produces 1 million trees every year.
With California its No. 1 market, the farm stocks the big chain stores prior to Thanksgiving, when Black Friday weekend draws 2 percent of retail sales.
Though the industry has predicted a shortage the last few years, Schaefer believes there are enough trees this year. Customers wanting to pay less go with shorter trees and faster-growing species, especially Douglas fir.
“You can probably get a 5- or 6-foot Doug fir for under $30,” Schaefer said. “I’ve seen retail lots charging $18-20 a foot for the bigger Noble firs and selling them like hotcakes. The average price for a 9- to 10-foot Noble tree in L.A. is about $160.”
Natural Christmas trees still have a special attraction for families, he said.
“A lot of times people are buying that Christmas tree smell,” Schaefer said. “Millennials starting families want to develop traditions. Some were raised with artificial trees but are now into whole foods and a clean environment and they’re jumping onto the real tree bandwagon.”
Grand fir is the most fragrant Christmas tree, but Douglas and Frazier firs hold up longer, making them the choice farther afield, where customers can enjoy them upwards of a month and a half.
Due to a higher production of Douglas fir this year Noble Mountain is increasing its shipments to Mexico.
However, Helmuth Rogg of the Oregon Department of Agriculture says the overall number of trees sold in Mexico is on a downturn due to high freight costs, exchange rates, prohibitive requirements and political machinations. From 1 million trees two years ago, last year Oregon sent 600,000.
During the past few years ODA has worked with its counterparts in Mexico to eliminate a longstanding pesticide requirement to protect Oregon’s much-preferred integrated pest management strategy.
“Due to some internal political issues I’m not privy to, the review has not been finalized so unfortunately again this year we have to spray our trees three to six weeks prior to cutting,” Rogg said. “This is a big bummer to us because spraying pesticides in a field disrupts our growers’ integrated pest management approach.”
Not only is it impossible for growers to confine spraying to Mexico-bound trees in the field, the pesticides don’t discriminate between good and bad insects and, with their natural enemies wiped out, spider mites and aphids often flare up the following season.
Hawaii continues to be a major market for Oregon and works closely with the ODA to keep out foreign slug and snail species and yellow jackets.
“I’ve heard horror stories of the sugar cane fields having yellow jackets’ nests as big as Volkswagens,” Schaefer said.
Oregon growers use several weapons to get rid of any hitchhikers bound for Hawaii.
“We end up taking leaf blowers and blowing them twice, shaking them for 30-40 seconds and once that has been done they never hit the ground again,” Schaefer said.
About 45 percent of Pacific Northwest trees go to California and 10 percent to other Western states. Gulf states comprise 9 percent of the market and about 16 percent go to Mexico. About 4 percent go to Atlantic states with the rest going as far afield as Japan, China, Hong Kong, Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico and Dubai.
Oregon produces about 5.2 million trees a year, followed by North Carolina’s 3.5 million, Michigan’s 3 million, Pennsylvania’s 2.3 million and Washington state’s 1.5 million.
Of the country’s 350,000 acres of Christmas trees, 42,000 are in Oregon.