Why I Don’t Use Chemicals On My Christmas Tree Farm—And Why You Should Buy An Organic Holiday Tree

By avoiding insect sprays, these farms are making your holiday centerpiece even greener.

November 28, 2017
christmas tree farm
PHOTOGRAPH BY TIM PANNELL/MINT IMAGES/GETTY

Christmas trees can be a boon to the environment, when grown with biodiversity in mind. They provide important habitat for birds and wildlife, reduce erosion, and bolster the local pollinators. (Read more about the environmental benefits of Christmas trees here.) All this, and they are a focal point in the festivities throughout the holiday season, says Mark Rohlfs of Santa & Sons Christmas Trees in Philomath, Oregon. Since 1983 his operation focused on using less chemicals, and Rohlfs was an instrumental part in the development of the Socially & Environmentally Responsible Farm (SERF) program in coordination with Landgren at Oregon State University. 

(Brag your love of gardening with the Organic Life 2018 Wall Calendar, featuring gorgeous photographs, cooking tips and recipes, plus how to eat more—and waste less—of what's in season.)

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“What we’re doing is approaching it in a more holistic way,” Rohlfs says. “There are certain practices you have to demonstrate for this certification program.” For example, the avoidance of insect sprays. Other basic tenets of the program include responsible use of the land and water, thereby reducing the possibility of erosion that impacts streams and other water resources. At Rohlf’s farm, they focus on creating a landscape that promotes biodiversity, as well as using Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques to handle weed, pest, and disease issues. 

Related: Is An Artificial Christmas Tree More Eco Friendly Than A Real One?

During years when insects are a problem beyond the scope of even the hungriest predatory insects, Rohlfs says the approach is to understand the lifecycle of the insects in order to apply a pesticide, even an organic one, at the appropriate time.

“Being in farming for 35 years I’ve seen insects wildly missed,” he explains. Too many times, by the time a grower notices the heavy infestation and decides to spray, the insects are gone, or the window of avoiding damage is missed. Or even worse, some growers still apply pesticides on a regimented schedule, whether the trees are under attack or not.

Check out these 3 upcycled holiday gifts you can make from an old flannel shirt: 

Implementing a holistic plan requires keen and consistent observations. “We use all of these alternate approaches first,” he says. “When we do so, we see the chemical use drastically reduced.” 

 

This holds true for disease issues, as well. While there aren’t predatory insects to eradicate the issue, utilizing less harmful chemicals, such as a copper spray, or even an aggressive thinning of the stand, can often contain the situation. 

And ensuring the trees have proper nutrients is a key element for growers. Doug Murphy of Murphy Christmas Trees in Sparta, North Carolina has also taken the steps to demonstrate that his trees are grown in a more sustainable manner. He notes that fertilizer costs have increased significantly over the years reducing potential profit in this competitive market. “If you could sow clover and fix the nitrogen in the ground, you don’t have to fertilize as much,” he says. 

Related: 20 Delightful Old-Fashioned Christmas Ornaments You Can Buy On Etsy

Betty and Pat Malone of Sunrise Tree Farm in Philomath, Oregon were also one of the early farms certified within the SERF program. And while they were already implementing the steps of the plan, it takes additional effort to maintain the paperwork. 

Yet Betty Malone believes it’s worthwhile: “It gives us affirmation for the work we’re doing,” she says. “And it brings us customers. It was that program that gave us the attention.” As a result, she says they landed a contract with Whole Foods Market, whose customers want a naturally grown tree. 

While every farm is different, there are a number of common problems that arise in a large scale tree operation. One of the Malone’s first issues was dealing with a significant erosion problem on their farm. Since nature abhors bare ground, one remedy was planting ground covers, like grasses, clovers, and legumes, between the rows of trees. Besides mitigating the erosion, it provides habitat for wildlife and reduces pesticide use due to the beneficial insects thriving in the environment. 

 

But having rows of cover crops instead of bare earth between the rows is something that takes getting used to for many growers. Instead of a neat and tidy landscape between the trees, there is a diversity of plants. Some might say it looks messy. 

“My idea of what it should look like has changed. To me, it looks healthy,” says Malone. 

Related: 6 Ways To Recycle Your Christmas Tree

One challenge surrounding the use of ground covers is it can compete for moisture with young trees. “One of the things we did to mitigate it is to irrigate our small trees,” she says. Once the trees are 3 to 4 feet tall, they do fine without the additional water. 

Another change they made involving the ground cover is timing when they mow. After learning about the ground nesting habits of Western meadowlarks, they didn’t cut the grasses and plants used as ground cover until later in June to allow time for them to hatch and leave. 

“It was an easy adjustment to make,” she says, and the result is a booming population of these insect-eating birds. 

With diverse plants encouraging insects and wildlife, they estimate they’ve reduced their pesticide use by between 60 to 70 percent. 

Murphy has had a very similar experience. “I’ve been in the industry for 30 years,” he says. “As I became more knowledgeable, I began to understand there was a balance that can be achieved. There is a better way, and a less expensive way.” 

He notes that it’s an appealing concept across the board. “The younger generation growers are really starting to see there’s money to be put back in the pocket and do the right thing.”