Asheville loves its organic produce. The area is home to dozens of farmers markets, health food stores and farm-to-table restaurants, each promoting a commitment to crops raised without synthetic pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers. But the same shoppers who scrupulously avoid conventional fruits and vegetables may not think twice about the practices used to raise another of Western North Carolina’s agricultural mainstays — Christmas trees.
Festive conifers such as Fraser firs are big business in the region. Individual Christmas trees can fetch up to $30 each wholesale, and in 2012, North Carolina growers harvested 4.3 million of them. Mountain counties such as Ashe, Mitchell and Watauga make up the bulk of North Carolina’s production, which is second only to that of Oregon among U.S. states.
While they promise a sizable payoff, Fraser firs can take 10 years in the field to reach a suitable height for holiday display. Farmers are understandably eager to protect the long-term investment that Christmas trees represent, and nearly all of them include synthetic chemicals in their agricultural toolkit. In 2013, the most recent year for which data are available, 99.4 percent of Christmas tree acreage was treated with the herbicide glyphosate (Roundup), and 48.4 percent was treated with the insecticide bifenthrin (Talstar, Sniper).
As experts with N.C. Cooperative Extension explain, however, those numbers don’t tell the whole story. Christmas tree growers in the state have actually decreased their total pesticide use by nearly 75 percent over the past 12 years, and lower rates of herbicides are now standard practice throughout the industry. “To me, it’s been a wonderful example of adult learning and change,” says area extension specialist Jeff Owen with the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center in Mills River.
A lighter touch
Owen acknowledges that the industry needed to change when he began working with Christmas tree growers in the late 1980s. At that time, many farmers relied on the heavy use of herbicides such as atrazine and simazine for weed control, which left the ground underneath their trees bare for up to half of each year. On the steep hillsides of the typical tree farm, that lack of vegetation contributed to erosion and promoted root diseases.
Researchers began exploring alternatives that could keep trees from being smothered by weeds while also maintaining ground cover. Walter Skroch, a professor of horticultural science at N.C. State University, worked with student Stu Warren to develop a technique they called chemical mowing. Instead of killing weeds, chemical mowing uses lower levels of herbicides to stunt their growth, preventing them from outcompeting the valuable Christmas trees.
Although promising, the approach didn’t catch on until extension technician Doug Hundley began recruiting Christmas tree growers for field trials of chemical mowing. “We had a group of eight or nine growers, with each of them using different timing and application rates,” explains Owen. “We figured out what our safe window was and what rates worked best — and now we had growers who were confident in the technique. It wasn’t just the university or extension office talking about it.”
Chemical mowing proved to have both economic and environmental benefits compared with previous types of weed control. In addition to preventing erosion and cooling soil temperatures, the approach also kept nitrogen-supplying clover underneath the Christmas trees. “We had growers that quit putting out nitrogen fertilizer because they had adequate clover. It was by far cheaper than what they’d been doing beforehand,” Owen says.
A similar shift took place in the realm of pest control. In 1987, the N.C. Department of Agriculture fined several area growers when they tried to control twig aphids with the pesticide disulfoton (Di-Syston 15 G), a neurotoxic chemical not approved for use in Christmas trees. Extension specialist Jill Sidebottom was hired the following year to investigate different strategies for protecting trees from insects.
Sidebottom and her colleagues began developing a strategy known as integrated pest management, or IPM, for Christmas tree growers. The approach asks farmers to develop a closer relationship with their crops before choosing to use chemical controls. “IPM growers regularly scout each block of trees to find out which pests are becoming a problem,” says Sidebottom. “Most of these insects are so small you have to use a magnifying glass to find them — it’s not an easy skill to learn.”
If growers find unwanted insects, they first try strategies such as removing infected trees to prevent the spread or adding beneficial insect predators into the mix. Only when a pest problem threatens the economic viability of the crop do IPM growers turn to chemical pesticides, and those products are chosen to avoid harming beneficial insects as much as possible.
Whether dealing with herbicides or pesticides, Christmas tree growers strive to ensure that the workers applying the chemicals do so safely. Jim Hamilton, county extension director at the Watauga County center, has helped develop educational programs for seasonal farm employees, roughly three-quarters of whom are Hispanic guest workers under the H-2A visa program.
A fluent Spanish speaker and former Peace Corps volunteer in Paraguay, Hamilton explains that cultural differences can sometimes lead to unsafe behavior around agricultural chemicals. “There’s still a kind of cultural patriarchy in the supervisor-employee relationship,” he says. “You may not want to bother your employer if your glove tears while you’re applying a pesticide, but if you don’t ask, you might not get the equipment you need.”
Sidebottom adds that another cultural barrier concerned washing off chemical residues after a hard day’s work. “Our recommendation would be to take a shower and get all that off you, but their perspective is that if you take a shower when your body is really hot, it’s like pouring water on a running engine,” she says. Understanding these differences helped the N.C. Cooperative Extension create more effective safety training and reduce overall chemical exposure.
Hamilton emphasizes that Christmas tree growers are extremely concerned for the welfare of their workforce. “Labor is such an important part of the industry, and growers don’t want to do anything to jeopardize it. They sponsor meals at our sessions and pay the crews for their time in training,” he says. “Some of these workers have been groomsmen at the farmers’ kids weddings — there’s a good relationship out there that doesn’t get highlighted enough.”
Consumers looking for a certified organic Christmas tree should probably cross it off the holiday shopping list: Such a conifer is nigh impossible to find. Sidebottom estimates no more than 1,500 organically grown trees are sold in the state each year, and the number may be much lower. Farmer Aubrey Raper of Marshall’s Rogue Harbor Farm says he and his wife, Linda, experimented with growing trees organically beginning in 1996 but eventually concluded that the local consumer market didn’t support the operation.
If Rogue Harbor Farm wanted to sell trees by mail order, there’s plenty of demand. Even without advertising and after removing references to organically grown trees from the farm’s website, people hoping to score an organic tree manage to find the Rapers’ operation.
“We get two or three phone calls every day from around the country, looking for an organic tree,” Aubrey says, but the environmental impact and economics of shipping a single 8-foot-tall Christmas tree to California or Texas just don’t make sense to him. Instead, the Rapers have shifted to harvesting greenery for wreaths from their stand of evergreens. They sell some of the wreaths locally and ship around the country. While the foliage isn’t certified organic like some of the farm’s other products, it’s grown using organic methods and inputs.
Challenges and confidence
Despite the progress made in recent decades, Owen says continuing education is key to keeping chemical usage at low levels on Christmas tree farms. “When push comes to shove, all [growers] have to do is pour a little bit extra in the tank, and they’re not going to have to deal with any kind of uncertainty,” he says. “Someone has to really understand and believe in the philosophy to maintain this kind of program over the years.”
Owen adds that other players in the industry, such as pesticide producers and agricultural product dealers, may have different priorities in terms of chemical usage. Xpress contacted multiple representatives from Southern Agricultural Insecticides and Crop Production Services, two sellers listed as allied businesses on the N.C. Christmas Tree Association website, but none agreed to be interviewed for this article.
Regardless, Owen believes that the benefits of these growing practices speak for themselves. “We’ve been fortunate to find ways to save growers money and also do a better job of protecting soil and managing pest problems,” he says. “We could’ve found that it’s not the case, but often we find that less is better.”