California drought: What it means for Christmas trees

The West Coast drought means fewer Christmas trees – and different varieties, so Christmas tree farmers are adapting.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP
Kirk Malon, of the Department of General Services, attaches tethers to a crane to lift the state Christmas Tree into position in front of the state Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Nov. 3. Californians will still get their trees this year, though the drought may impact how people obtain them.

Even at Christmas, Californians are thinking about the drought – and whether to buy a live tree.

Nearly 1 in 3 Californians surveyed are considering the drought in their tree-shopping plans, according to the American Christmas Tree Association, which advocates for Christmas tree purchases.

"Thirty percent said the drought would definitely impact their choice of a Christmas tree, and that's fairly significant," Jami Warner, the director of the American Christmas Tree Association tells The Christian Science Monitor.

While only 9 percent of respondents said the drought convinced them to go treeless, 18 percent are switching from real to artificial trees. Warner says the gallon-of-water-per-day required to keep a tree alive is "not statistically significant, but it's enough to get people thinking." 

"We hope that it won't keep people from getting a Christmas tree at all," Warner says.

Ms. Warner, who lives in California, says even the rainfall this fall has not relieved the state's constant concern about water, and the issue of conserving water remains "very top of mind." But she says that some Californians may overestimate the impact the drought is having on their personal tree use and the overall Christmas tree growth because of their general concerns, Warner says. 

Despite the drought, some Christmas tree growers in Oregon, the nation's top producer of the holiday icons, are feeling good about the season, Kohr Harlan reported for KOIN 6 News.

"We’ve shipped some already to New York City and Oklahoma and Texas," Steve Randall, owner of Porter Hill Tree Farms, told KOIN 6. "Usually the later markets are California where they don’t have to travel so far." 

A few seedlings died in the dry summer, which will affect prices somewhat, but the mature trees are strong enough to weather the change, Randall told KOIN 6. 

The lack of water means fewer varieties of trees being grown in Oregon. According to Oregon State University, rainfall from April to June this year was 4.3 inches, just over half of the average rainfall for that time of year at 7.95 inches. 

Ron Herrington, a Christmas tree farmer in Roseburg, Oregon says most Christmas trees take 6 to 8 years to grow to maturity. The drought dried out his 5-year-old Grand firs. Only his 8-year-old Douglas firs survived, reports KSNV-TV Channel 3 in Las Vegas, where there are fewer pop-up tree stands this year. 

"I spoke to two other growers last night looking for trees for some of my customers, and there were no trees to be found," Mr. Herrington told KSNV.

One response to the California drought has been to sell tress that require less water. Sarah Parvini for the Los Angeles Times reported. Scott Martin, the owner of a Christmas tree-rental farm, in Carson, Calif., said he pulled 40 percent of its classic Christmas pines - 200 trees - off the lot in 2014. These pines require more water and brown more quickly in the sun than another, more popular variety - the spruce. 

Water conservation on the home front helps, too. Mr. Martin asked the Christmas enthusiasts who rented his trees last year to fill the bases with ice cubes, rather than water.

"It's a more effective way for the tree to absorb the water," Martin told the Los Angeles Times. 

The drought impacted California's Christmas trees last year, even before the state mandated water conservation so strictly. More of the young trees in drought-affected areas died during the hot summer, but the mature trees had deeper root systems and pulled through.

"It takes a number of years to get a marketable product," Rick Dungey for the National Christmas Tree Association, which represents only the farm-grown variety of Christmas tree, told the  Los Angeles Times. "With too little rain you can get slow growth rates, but mature trees are hardy and durable."

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