It’s the focal point of a magical holiday for many American families: the Christmas tree, adorned with ornaments and bright lights.
But for farmers, it’s an agricultural crop that they grow and sell to make a living. And hundreds of U.S. Christmas tree farms have closed in recent years as growers deal with tighter supply, shifting consumer preferences and climate change.
The U.S. has experienced a 33% drop in Christmas tree production, from 30 million in 1977 to 20 million earlier this decade, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.
Tree farmers face an especially uncertain future as questions loom over how they’ll remain profitable on a warming planet prone to droughts, floods, wildfires and other weather disasters.
“It’s a real situation for farmers. They’re growing trees in an environment in which they can see the impact of climate change,” said Tim O’Connor, executive director of the National Christmas Tree Association.
All types of U.S. farmers are struggling with climate change. But recovery for tree farmers from extreme weather is especially difficult, since a single disaster could wipe out a harvest for a decade. A 5- or 6-foot tree takes just under 10 years to grow, before they are cut down, sold and replaced with another seedling.
Last year, the Camp Fire blazed through the town of Paradise, California, and burned a Christmas tree farm to the ground. The fire occurred just months after three other Christmas tree farms were wiped out in Northern California. The state’s wildfires will grow worse and more common as the planet warms, scientists say.
Christmas tree farms benefit the environment. They help the country preserve open land from development and provide habitats for wildlife. Farmers also tend to replant several trees after cutting one down in order to increase their harvest.
But warmer winters and drier summers have led to invasive insects and diseases damaging roots and needles and killing trees altogether.
Two popular species of trees, the Douglas fir and the Ponderosa pine, are in abrupt decline as fires and drought exacerbated byclimate change make new growth difficult, according to a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“If climate change was to result in warmer temperatures in the fall, there would be a greater risk of needle loss on harvested trees,” said Washington State University plant pathologist Gary Chastagner.
“If climate change resulted in increased rain during the growing season,” he added, “this would also have the potential to increase the risk of Phytophthora root rot, which can be a very serious disease that kills trees.”
Since Christmas trees are generally grown in five- to seven-year rotations, farmers can try to adjust the types of trees they plant in order to deal with short-term changes in temperature and rainfall.
“Climate change is a real thing,” O’Connor said. “Producers are dealing with it by looking for other types or varieties of trees that might perform better in other climates. It’s a situation that the industry does have to manage, like all of agriculture.”
Rise in tree prices tied to recession
Christmas tree prices have more than doubled since 2008. The average price of a tree is now $76, according to data from the National Christmas Tree Association, which represents sellers of real trees.
The rise in price is tied to the 2008 financial crisis, when farmers cut down fewer trees to sell or went out of business altogether. That left less space for plant replacements and ultimately a smaller batch of seedlings. A decade later, prices have reached record highs in a tight market.
“In 2015, the industry went through a painful process of reducing supply. Since 2015, the industry has gotten back on its feet,” O’Connor said. “To say prices are a lot higher today — we’re just at the point of where the industry is at a normal period of profitability.”
As prices rise and the climate changes, farmers in major growing states like North Carolina and Oregon are shifting to other crops.
In Oregon, the number of Christmas tree farms fell from 614 in 2012 to 382 in 2018, and Christmas tree farms in Wisconsin fell from 423 to 366 during that period, according to state data.
Oregon tree farmers comprise roughly 30% of the market, but many of them are turning to other crops like grapes or cannabis.