Dozing polar bear, Indianapolis Zoo

Thursday, December 14, 2006

O Fir tree dark

Back in the early part of November, the family and I were exploring in the Cascades, and we came upon a Christmas tree farm. That happens a lot. Oregon is the largest Christmas tree producing state in the union, along with North Carolina, where I also used to live. But as we approached the neat lines of trees, we saw a helicopter zinging back and forth over the grove. It had a magnet attached, and would pick up a tree, zip back to a large truck, drop it, and repeat the process. Harvest time! It was riveting in its way. I shot a few frames, and the husband, kid and I stood gazing at it for a long while. Mr. T even shot some video, with permission of the folks onsite:

I doubt many people pause to consider Christmas tree production as a form of agriculture. Likely, even fewer consider the environmental impacts of our societal fixation with parking cultivated evergreens in our houses and adorning them with lights and ornaments (which were probably manufactured in China and shipped here on container ships). I'm quite fond of Christmas trees myself. And Americans are not about to give up those trees anytime soon. But what are the impacts, and what are the alternatives?

Christmas tree farming isn’t totally devoid of environmental benefits. Like any other trees, they’re carbon sinks. But – you knew that was coming – an Ohio State University study found that pine plantations are not as effective at retaining carbon as hardwood or natural pine forests. That same study estimated that an area the size of Los Angeles is converted to pine plantations each year. So, replacing hardwoods and natural pine with pine plantations is a net negative, carbonwise.

And that’s not all.

Christmas trees farms also rely significantly on pesticides. (Though it appears there is some debate about how much.) There are, naturally, human and environmental costs to this. Aside from the degree to which properly applied pesticides endanger environmental and public health, which also appears to be a matter of debate*, it’s important to note that not all pesticides are applied properly.

This article observes that many (often Spanish-speaking) farmworkers often receive little training in pesticide use. What’s more, the instructions on the containers are written in English, a language many don't understand. In addition, many of these seasonal farmworkers live very near the fields on which those pesticides have been sprayed, further ratcheting up their exposure.

And yet, while some Christmas tree growers are moving toward pesticide-free practices, they are still few and far between. That the organic Christmas tree market is still so small suggests to me that most folks buy organic to avoid ingesting harmful substances, and that concerns for putting pesticides into the environment and worker pesticide exposure are less a part of the collective consciousness.

You may have a hard time finding an organic tree. Even living in Oregon, I have yet to find an outlet for organic trees. Go here to determine if you can get one in your area.

2007 Update: There are quite a few folks googling their way onto this post. If you find a source for organic trees and/or greenery, would you kindly let us know in a comment on this post? Lots of people are looking, and it would be lovely if they could find something.

*The Agricultural Health Study, a long-term study of farm families and commercial pesticide applicators in Iowa and North Carolina, has found that farmers generally have a lower cancer risk than the general public, but:

“Other findings include the suggestion of an association between exposure to specific pesticides and higher risk of specific cancers. The suggested associations include: prostate cancer and methyl bromide, immune/blood cancers and alachlor, lung cancer and chlorpyrifos, and some evidence of increased breast cancer associated with exposure to several pesticides."


JLB said...

Thank you so much for addressing some of these issues with Christmas tree farming. The pesticide usage issue is one that really nags at my mind, and I too would like to see an increase in organic Christmas tree farming. Still, I think that it's great to purchase locally-grown trees, and even better to buy live ones, and plant them in the ground! :)

Here is another place where you can look for organic trees:

Not the prettiest site, and it's a short listing, but it gets the job done.

By the by, the helicopter thing sounds so awesome... I hope you can share one of those pictures!


JLB said...

Oh yes, yes! Thank you so much for sharing that video clip - absolutely excellent!