Happy organic holidays

Curtis Buchanan was 5 years old when the sea of Christmas trees in his father’s front yard first urged him out on a frosty morning to inhale their balsam fragrance and feel their soft, blue-green needles brush against his face. Today, Buchanan walks among his own crop of organically grown Fraser firs as often as he can to check for insect pests, so he won’t have to spray his fields with poisons.

“As far as I know, I have the first organically certified Fraser fir farm in the nation,” he notes with understated pride. For the last seven years, Buchanan has been conducting an experiment in cooperation with state agricultural officials. Now, he’s preparing to bring his first mature crop of certified-organic trees to market.

On a conventional tree farm, the earth between the rows of trees would be made barren and sterile by herbicides. Here, what Buchanan laughingly describes as an “embarrassing field of weeds on steroids” helps conserve his soil’s moisture and gives the grubs some more tempting plant matter to chew on than the roots of his trees.

North Carolina is the nation’s No. 2 producer of Christmas trees, with more than 50 million trees being raised on about 25,000 acres. Most of the 2,500 farmers who grow them are here in the mountains — usually small producers, according to Buchanan, planting an abandoned pasture or fallow field to supplement their ordinary income with the $5,000 to $10,000 per year a crop of Christmas trees can bring in. The trees Buchanan’s father grew paid for his college tuition; now, Buchanan hopes, his organic trees will “help with another college tuition — this time that of my youngest daughter.”

This is no get-rich-quick scheme, however. It takes up to 12 years, and a lot of hard work, to get a marketable crop of Fraser firs — the Southern Appalachian mountain native that’s now the country’s best-selling Christmas tree — from seeds in the ground to stands in a parking lot. Even starting from seedlings, as Buchanan did, still entails a seven-year start-up period.

And when managed by conventional, chemical-intensive methods, those tree farms can exact a heavy toll on their environment. Fertilizer runoff from sloping mountain fields and weed-cleared grounds can pollute streams and ponds with algae-inducing nitrogen. Di-syston, the granular pesticide most commonly used against spider mites and twig aphids, can be picked up and eaten by birds; liquid pesticides expose farm workers to fumes and overspray. And overuse of herbicides can actually end up worsening grub infestations, according to state pest-management specialists.

Environmentally concerned consumers sometimes buy live trees that they can replant after the holidays. But digging up those trees can cause soil erosion. Cut trees, on the other hand, are recycled into mulch in many communities, including Asheville.

Thanks to a 10-year effort by the state Department of Agriculture, however, more and more Tar Heel Christmas-tree growers are using integrated pest management to reduce their dependence on chemicals. IPM works by encouraging farmers to get more closely involved with observing their fields and crops, the way all farmers used to do. Rather than routinely spraying or fertilizing, growers walk through their fields, scouting for pests and sampling their soil and crop tissue to determine how much intervention, if any, is actually needed. Leaving wild borders around fields and letting ground cover grow around trees provides shelter for predators that help control insect pests.

Buchanan, a member of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, is helping lead the move to this more natural — and more economical — way of producing Yuletide greenery. His environmental concerns have led the innovative farmer “to try to influence the way conventional growers grow trees,” he says. Accordingly, Buchanan regularly gives talks to other farmers and hands out copies of an article he’s written about his methods.

“I’m not delusioned to think they might [all] be organic growers, but just by changing a few of their practices, they could have a really good operation,” he asserts.

But organics can be a hard sell. Although closely observing their fields and using the least-invasive pest controls saves farmers a great deal of money on expensive chemicals while preserving the health of their soil, it also puts a bigger demand on their scarcest commodity: time. Many farmers, says Buchanan, are reluctant to invest that time — or afraid to change established practices that have consistently yielded them a good crop. Still, he feels his message is gradually getting through.

“I talked to the Mitchell County Christmas Tree Growers’ Association,” he recalls. “Twenty-five guys, and they’re these regular farmers, you know. … They’ve heard of organic now, but they don’t know what it means too much, and they aren’t too warm to it. And we’re sitting there, discussing everything, and I’m sort of feeling like, why’d I come here for, this is kind of a waste of time — spent hours of my time to drive over here and talk with these guys. And at the end of the meeting, one of them came up to me, old country fellow, and he said, ‘Well, it just goes to reason that you gotta put back what you take out.’ And I said: ‘That’s the bottom line right there. You have said it in one sentence.'”

Curtis Buchanan is taking pre-orders for his organically grown Christmas trees at (423) 753-5160. Prices range from $30-$75, depending on size and grade. The pick-up spot in Asheville will be at Earth Fare on Saturdays and Sundays, Nov. 30 through Dec. 8.

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