​Northeast Christmas tree farmers get drought in their stockings

Drought has killed many young trees on farms across New England. Farmers are strugglng to adapt, by planting new varieties and considering drip irrigation systems.

Nikki Fox/Daily News-Record/AP
Delmer Ratliff, who owns Ratliff Tree Farm with his brother, Delmas, in Timberville, Va., packages a tree for a customer.

John Elwell has a pine needle stuck just below his left eye, but he doesn’t seem to mind. In this drought year that killed 80 percent of the plantings at his Christmas tree farm, he’ll take green wherever he can find it.

The New England drought will force Mr. Elwell to cut his selling season in half this year. It decimated his younger trees. If he’s not careful, the former high school principal might not have enough mature ones to sell next year.

“I’ve pulled up a lot of the dead ones,” Elwell says. “I want it to look good.”

The real damage may not be felt for years. The trees people cut down at his farm already are between 10 and 15 years old. That means it’s a decade from now when Elwell estimates he might have a supply gap from this year’s drought, costing him about $50,000, on top of the $2,000-worth of seeds he lost this year. He opted not to buy pre-cut trees like his competitors to stay in business longer this year.

“If I have a year where I don’t have the volume because of this drought, then I have a significant cost,” says Elwell, who stands about 6 feet tall, white hair peeking from underneath a beige baseball cap that says “Maple Crest Farm,” the name of the farm that’s been in his family 99 years. “I’m going to have to plant twice as many next year.”

The other three tree farms in West Newbury suffered similar losses. It’s a fate shared by the whole of Massachusetts and New England, and it’s a tale that climate scientists and forest ecologists say may become more common with warmer temperatures associated with climate change.

“They’re experiencing climate change and air pollution and insects and pests and land use change,” says Erica Smithwick, an ecologist and the director of the Center for Landscape Dynamics at Pennsylvania State University. “It does appear that climate change could be pushing some of these trees over the edge.”

As a result, tree farmers in this region are adapting the varieties they grow and in some cases considering investments in things like drip irrigation systems – all of which represents just one front in a wider effort to help America’s forests and orchards adapt to changing conditions.

Elwell jokes that he’s an optimist because, well, why else would a 74-year-old do work today that he can’t benefit from for 10 more years?

But that doesn’t mean Elwell isn’t concerned. He rides a golf cart chased – or, rather, led – by a one-year-old short-haired German shepherd named Gunnar to a patch of his 32-acre farm where his Norway spruces died. Gaps in the rows of trees are unmarked graves for saplings taken by the drought after turning a sickly rust orange.

Dressed in a plaid flannel shirt, dirtied blue carpenter jeans, and brown utility boots, Elwell points a finger from his bulky, weathered safety gloves toward the reservoir just beyond the rolling hills of Christmas trees. He says he’s never seen the reservoir this low, pointing to a spot on the bank that hasn’t before been visible as proof.

“You keep hoping that climate change isn’t going on, but then you have these experiences,” Elwell says. “I can’t refute the experts. Are we making the cycle worse? Maybe we are.”

Zach Colman/The Christian Science Monitor
John Elwell, shown here on his tree farm in West Newbury, Mass., saw many of his young trees killed by drought, and says he has never seen a nearby reservoir so low.

Climate scientists avoid linking specific, individual extreme weather events, like drought, to climate change. But the science points to some overall trends that might make droughts more frequent or severe and that, in turn, will stress the conifers that fill living rooms every December. And it goes beyond New England, as warmer temperatures are pushing species of trees and other flora and fauna out of their traditional homes for several reasons.

Challenge in many regions

Ms. Smithwick says the East is expected to have large temperature increases, which will affect plants even if average annual precipitation doesn’t change much for the region, as climate models predict.

That’s because plants will have to work harder in hotter temperatures if precipitation remains the same. For trees with shallow roots or in rocky areas, or ones that are more sensitive to heat, the result could be large die-offs. Drier projected autumns would also raise the risk for fires: Wetter springs would boost biomass that drops to the ground in the fall and, if drier, create kindling for a densely populated region with considerable fire risks. Of roughly 62,000 human-caused fires in the US each year, two-thirds occur east of the Mississippi River or in certain portions of Texas and Oklahoma, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

“I think what ecologists are most worried about is we’re not seeing regeneration,” Smithwick says. “It really calls into question the fate of forests in general.”

A December 2015 study noted surprising deaths of pines in the Southwest, where trees are more drought adapted. The research, published in the journal Nature Climate Change and led by Nathan G. McDowell, a climate researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, said the results indicated forests experienced “a high likelihood” of “widespread mortality” by 2100 when extrapolated across all of North Hemisphere. Juniper trees were of particular concern, and the study said the tree “has alarming implications for conifers in general because juniper historically experienced far less mortality than other conifers during droughts.”

California forests are also enduring strain from drought, according to a study by the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford University, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study, which used airborne and satellite imaging technology to measure forest canopy water content, found 58 million of the state’s trees lost more than 30 percent of their water content between 2011 and 2015, a threshold the authors considered “severe.”

As for New England, recent research on the effect that melting Arctic sea ice has on wind patterns might help explain the drought.

The difference in temperatures between the Arctic and New England has shrunk in recent years as the Arctic has warmed. That, in turn, “weakens the engine that drives our winds and that can cause big changes in our storm tracks,” says Jacquelyn Gill, a paleoecologist at the University of Maine. That smoother gradient creates “blocking patterns” that can lead to cold snaps or heatwaves, she says. In this case, it established more space for storm tracks to travel further north, depriving New England of the rain it usually gets. That also resulted in more warm, humid nights that further tested plants, Gill says.

People in the region have noticed the trend.

Jeannine Largess of Boston called Elwell to see if he was even selling trees. Her daughter, Mary Rose, said a customer at the Starbucks where she works mentioned a failed attempt to shop for a Christmas tree – at another farm that wasn’t selling trees because of the drought.

“It’s good that he has some, but he said he has to shut down this weekend to conserve what he has,” Jeannine Largess says before she and her daughter embark on their tree hunt at Elwell’s farm. She is skeptical, however, of the consensus of climate scientists that humans are largely responsible for warming the planet, which dismays her daughter, who has an environmental science degree.

More moisture in air, less in soil?

Warmer temperatures might have the most pronounced effect on trees by increasing the ability of the atmosphere to hold moisture. As the atmosphere gets warmer, it can absorb more vapor, meaning clouds release precipitation less frequently, thus starving the soil and plants of water. That especially poses risks to young trees whose roots haven’t developed, like those growing on Christmas tree farms, but also to entire species if the climate trend is prolonged or permanent.

“We have a range of trees when we go to the tree farm store to pick up our Christmas tree. We have a lot of options in some places,” Gill says. “If farmers diversify their tree crops they may be able to buffer against some risks.”

Mark Harnett says he’s done planting Douglas firs – the most iconic of Christmas trees – and Norway spruces because none of them survived. Instead, the owner of Mistletoe Christmas Tree Farm in Stow, Mass., says he’ll double down on concolor firs, which do better in drought. He couldn’t sell his trees at full cost because they were skimpy. Nine out of 10 trees Harnett is selling this year are pre-cuts purchased from New Hampshire, compared with his normal 50-50 split of pre-cut to homegrown.

Mr. Harnett also buys some trees that are three years old and raises them for another six or so years until they’re ready to be sold. But those also struggled in the drought.

“In six years – that’s how we’re viewing it – it may be limiting the money we have for college, and I’m going to have three kids in school. That’s why we started this business,” he says. “You look at the average tuition up here in New England and it’s about $50,000 per year for room and board.”

Zach Colman/The Christian Science Monitor
A dead tree at Mr. Elwell's farm. This drought year killed 80 percent of the plantings.

Planting different trees

Michael Smolak says the New England drought goes beyond trees. While about 85 percent of his 6,000 plantings died this year, crops like cranberries suffered because there wasn’t enough water for the bogs, and dairy farmers couldn’t find enough grass for their cattle. Farmstead sales in the state were down 30 percent, says Mr. Smolak, who sits on the commonwealth’s Farm Service Agency committee and was appointed to the Massachusetts Agricultural Board by Republican Gov. Charlie Baker.

But it’s “real dog work” to go out and replant and water all of his trees, Smolak says. So that’s why he wants to promote cost-sharing for infrastructure so that farmers can afford the expensive, $20,000 drip irrigation systems that can save time and water.

“I know that things have changed. The trees don’t look as healthy as they used to look. We’re seeing diseases we didn’t see before, pests we didn’t see before,” Smolak says. “Take the politics out of it and bring the science in it.”

Still, Smolak is adjusting, too. He no longer plants scotch pine, blue spruce, or white spruce. They lose their needles quickly if it’s a dry season.

But the ability to make those changes is what separates tree farms from the broader trends hitting forests that grow in the wild. Elwell, for example, isn’t worried about a wildfire originating inside his tree farm, but he’s surrounded by oak, maple, hickory, and birch that, early in December, already have bared their branches.

“Look at the forest here. Look at what’s happening in Tennessee,” he says, referencing the massive wildfire there that killed 14 people as of Wednesday. Two juveniles have been charged with arson that is believed to have ignited the blaze.

One tactic: 'assisted migration' of species

Forests involve a lot more coordination and somewhat controversial practices to mitigate the effects of climate change. One such practice, called assisted migration, involves moving species into regions ahead of climate change so they have time to acclimate. The idea is just gaining currency in national parks, though it has many detractors, but states and the US Forest Service have been practicing it in pockets for some time.

“People are talking about assisted migration in a serious way that they weren’t before,” says Smithwick, though she notes that those planning decisions on the East Coast are much harder and require more collaboration than in the West. That’s because forests can span states, counties, and federal lands with multiple layers of governance in the East, whereas in the West states are large and forests are often primarily controlled by the Interior Department.

Managing the farm beneath Elwell’s own two feet is challenging enough.

It wasn’t too long ago that he was a full-time school principal where he “hardly ever went in without a shirt and tie. If my teachers wore jeans, then we had a conversation.” But at least he looks the part of a New England tree farmer now.

And for a lifelong educator, he is now the student in his relatively new profession. Some of the other tree farmers in the town have given him a hand. The drought threw a curveball – but if this career transition has taught him anything, it’s that Elwell thinks he can adjust.

“It’s a learning curve,” he says. “But I’m getting better at it.”

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