Debbie Arrington

Drought hits another crop – Christmas trees

Lannea Spence of Stockton carries her twin girls, Blake and Ashlen, while on the hunt for the perfect Christmas tree in 2014 at Billy’s Farm in Wilton. Families seeking to choose and cut their own trees this season will find some favorite varieties limited by the California drought.
Lannea Spence of Stockton carries her twin girls, Blake and Ashlen, while on the hunt for the perfect Christmas tree in 2014 at Billy’s Farm in Wilton. Families seeking to choose and cut their own trees this season will find some favorite varieties limited by the California drought. The Sacramento Bee

Like a Grinch, the drought may put a damper on local Christmas celebrations. For one, years of sub-normal precipitation mean fewer big trees available at local farms for the holiday season.

“Come early if you can,” said Dee Kobervig, president of the El Dorado County Christmas Tree Growers. “We’ll be open until we’re sold out, but demand will surpass what we can grow.”

At Sierra foothills farms as well as in the national forest, lack of sufficient rain and snow for the past five years has greatly slowed growth of firs and other traditional Christmas trees. Farmed trees usually are harvested when six to 10 years old, so trees in the current crop have had to cope with drought conditions most of their lives.

“With four or five years of limited water, the trees grew a lot slower,” Kobervig said. “It’s taking longer to get a full-size tree than normal.”

That means a tree that usually would be 8 feet tall by now hasn’t topped 6 feet. And it’s the bigger trees that are the most sought-after.

“Demand also is growing,” noted Kobervig, who raises five varieties of trees at Crystal Creek Tree Farm in Camino. “People like to come out and cut their own tree, but they better not wait until the last minute. We’ve always been open until Christmas Eve, but I don’t know about this year.”

Some trees coped with drought better than others. Noble firs, a longtime favorite, were hit particularly hard.

“The Nobles have not done well at all during the drought,” Kobervig said. “They have a lot of brown needles and the number one rule is don’t buy a tree with the needles falling off.”

Other trees such as silver tip firs, Douglas firs, white firs and native incense cedars have coped much better. Nordmann firs, a tree native to Turkey and the Black Sea, also look good. The Nordmann tree tends to stay green and hold onto its blunt needles even when dry.

“The Nordmann is the number one tree in Europe and it’s getting very popular here, too,” Kobervig said.

Tree growers often “dry farm” without additional irrigation, but several El Dorado County growers resorted to buying water to help their young trees survive recent dry years, she added. The area’s 30-plus farms lost thousands of trees planted in 2013 and 2014 due to drought.

“Water was much more expensive in 2016,” Kobervig said, “so prices at most farms are increasing this season. It’s so far out when you plant a tree; you can’t sell it for 10 years. When you have a new planting, you’ve got to water it or you’ll lose it.”

In addition, the drought has taken a severe toll on Sierra forest. Recent estimates by the U.S. Department of Agriculture peg the number of dead trees in California forests at more than 102 million.

“When people drive up (to Apple Hill-area farms), they’ll see huge dead trees in the forest,” Kobervig said. “It’s not just drought, but bark beetle damage.”

The good news? Recent rain has growers hopeful that this will be a healthy winter for their trees.

“We had almost 9 inches in October,” Kobervig said. “The rain (last week) has trees looking very fresh. But they’re also very heavy; they’ve soaked up so much water. Be prepared to carry home a heavy tree.”

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