Christmas tree growers face challenging year

As families begin to cut down Christmas trees this year, some Christmas tree farmers are looking to cut their losses after some trees contracted a root-rotting disease.

In North Carolina, Phytophthora costs farmers up to $6 million a year, said John Frampton, a Christmas tree geneticist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. The nearly inescapable disease – which largely affects Fraser firs – occurs when damp soil conditions allow for its spores to swim through the root systems of trees and eventually kill them.

Since South Carolina’s climate and altitude can’t host the Fraser fir, Christmas tree farms rely on North Carolina’s supply to meet the desires of tree shoppers during the holiday season.

However, S.C. Christmas Tree Association treasurer Tom Sawyer said that tree shoppers in South Carolina have nothing to worry about.

“There is an abundant supply of Fraser firs in North Carolina,” said Sawyer, who also owns Tom Sawyer Christmas Tree Farm in Aiken County.

According to Sawyer, North Carolina growers are able to combat the disease with proper site selection. Growing the trees on the side of a mountain will aid in the natural drainage of the soil and help slow the process of Phytophthora.

“It’s just another peril that tree farmers face,” he said.

This year’s unusually wet summer was hard on tree farmers.

“This summer was prime condition for crops to be decimated by Phytophthora,” said Sarah White, a nursery extension specialist with Clemson University’s Department of Agriculture, Forest and Environmental Services. “We had nearly two consistent months of rain and not a lot of time to dry out. This allowed for Phytophthora to colonize in root systems of many plants in the region.”

The disease is not in the rainwater, White said. “But there may be (Phytophthora) spores present in the soil already or in the pond and lake water farmers use to irrigate their farms.”

White saidhat this could lead to some shortages within the near future.

“It probably takes three years to get one tree to a six-foot size, so it’s a time investment,” White said. “It may be three to five years before you are able to have a quality stock to sell.”

North Carolina Christmas tree farmer Jeff Pollard is among those hardest hit by the disease.

Pollard, who grows about 130,000 trees on several western North Carolina farms, said Phytophthora set in after Hurricane Fran in 1996 and got worse following 2004’s Hurricane Ivan. He’s lost about a quarter of his trees over the past six seasons, and the state rated the mortality on some of his stands at up to 80 percent.

Pollard is among growers who are turning to the Turkish fir – which resists root rot –as a possible replacement. He planted his first seedlings about six years ago and sold his first trees last year.

Of course, the Turkish fir is far from bulletproof.

It tends to bud out earlier than Fraser fir, making it vulnerable to late-season frosts. And deer find it irresistible.

“They’ll walk by Fraser fir to snack on the Turkish fir,” Frampton said with a chuckle.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.