Tree farm
Pollard Ranch and Tree Farm in Washington County is one of Oregon’s many Christmas tree producers. (Photo by Ann Murphy)

The damage to Noble firs, especially seedlings, was widespread but there are still plenty of trees available this season

The summer’s extreme heat wave decimated scores of Christmas trees. Many older trees suffered sunburn while many seedlings were killed.

But don’t worry about scoring a tree for your home this season.

“There will be plenty of trees,” said Chal Landgren, Christmas tree specialist at Oregon State University’s Extension Service. “But I would suggest people get their trees early to get a better selection.”

Industry experts predict that prices will be up by 5% to 10%, however.

“Our fuel costs are up and our labor costs are up,” said Tom Nordy, president of the Christmas Tree Growers Association and owner of Troutcreek Tree Farm, a 50-acre spread in Corbett. “Who wants to work outside in late November in the rain and mud? You have to pay a premium price for that.”

Oregon State University recommends choosing a tree that is green and healthy looking, with needles that snap like a fresh carrot. Shake it a few times to get rid of old needles. If it’s not been recently cut, make a fresh cut when you get home and put it in water. Choose a large, water-filled stand to display the tree indoors. Check the water level daily; trees will be very thirsty the first few days inside a heated home.

Oregon harvests 3.5 million Christmas trees a year, making it the nation’s top producer, Landgren said. Noble firs account for about half the trees planted, and about one-third are Douglas firs. The rest are a mix of Nordmann, Turkish and Grand firs, Landgren said.

They’re grown along the Willamette Valley, from Rainier to the California border. California is Oregon’s top export market, Landgren said, though the state’s producers sell across the country, to Mexico and even to Asia.

Washington state and northern California, which have a similar climate, are also home to Christmas tree farms. The trees like mild temperatures, well-drained soil and lots of rain – “somewhere above 30 to 40 inches,” Landgren said.

They don’t like scorching heat, which slammed the Willamette Valley in late June with temperatures soaring into the triple digits.

The three day “heat dome” was devastating to Noble firs that had just been planted in the spring.

“Noble fir aren’t deeply rooted,” Landgren said. “A lot of them died right after the heat dome.”

Older Noble firs which had set down roots fared better but they often got scorched on the south side. Douglas fir, on the other hand, with deeper root systems fared fairly well.

Christmas tree growers don’t irrigate their crops, which take seven years to mature. Doing so would be prohibitively expensive, Landgren said.

The heat dome affected different areas differently.

Farms on east-facing slopes of the Coast Range, including in Forest Grove, Banks, Dallas and Corvallis, didn’t suffer as much heat damage to their trees as those flanking the Cascades on the west-facing side in Molalla, Stayton, Colton and Estacada, Nordy said.

“Those areas didn’t cool down a whole lot until much later in the evening,” Nordy said.

Another factor also had a big impact: ground cover. Many growers use herbicides to get rid of weeds around the trees on the theory that they suck up moisture the trees might need. 

“Turns out that practice backfired this year,” Nordy said. Those who cleared out weeds saw the most damage. 

Nordy not only doesn’t fight weeds, he also plants a cover crop on the ground to avoid the mud. He said that crop helped to keep the soil cooler and protected delicate trees.

“All of my trees came through the heat dome looking great,” Nordy said. “As growers, we kind of learned something.”

Growers hope that this summer’s heat dome was an anomaly. If so, growers will be able to make up the loss. 

“If we don’t have another heat dome next June, we’ll probably have a good survival rate,” Nordy said. “Farms will blend last year’s crops with this year’s.”

But if the area suffers more heat waves, that would be catastrophic for the industry.

“If the climate keeps burning up our seedlings, it’s going to be a problem,” Nordy said.