Certification efforts aim to persuade consumers to buy farm-grown trees instead of artificial ones
KINGS VALLEY — Before setting out for a walk through her Christmas tree farm, Betty Malone reaches for a pair of red-handled pruning shears.
“I know better than to go out without my pruners,” Malone says. “My hand starts itching.”
Soon enough, Malone finds a 5-foot fir that needs trimming. Cutting back some of the summer growth will promote the full, conical shape buyers want.
But instead of lopping off the leader just above the highest bud, Malone leaves an inch and a half of extra stem. That provides room for birds to perch without damaging the tender buds — and, unlike some Christmas tree growers, Malone wants birds on her farm.
“I worked on another farm where they had the crew boss kill the eggs, and that just seemed crazy to me,” she recalled. “If we don’t have birds here, we’re doing something wrong.”
The birds also like the ground cover Malone and her husband, Pat, plant between the rows of firs and pines at Sunrise Tree Farm, their 75-acre operation in Kings Valley.
In addition to controlling erosion, the grass supports a host of predatory insects that keep spider mites, aphids and other tree pests in check. It’s all part of an integrated pest management program that keeps the use of insecticides, weed killers and other agricultural chemicals to a minimum.
Some of these management practices would have seemed crazy to most producers when the Malones started out in the mid-1970s.
But those attitudes are starting to change, and a small but growing number of Northwest Christmas tree farmers are hoping to push the industry still further — and score points with environmentally consicous consumers — through a new certification program.
Sunrise is in the inaugural class of five Oregon Christmas tree growers to win approval through the Socially and Environmentally Responsible Farm program. The others are Fertile Ground Tree Farm & Nursery in Estacada, Green Valley Tree Farm in Molalla, Noble Mountain Tree Farm in Salem and Whitewater Ranch in Leaberg.
Certification means a farm has met the program’s standards for biodiversity, soil and water conservation, integrated pest management, worker health and safety, and natural resource education.
It’s similar to a program launched in 2007 by the Coalition of Environmentally Conscious Growers. Four farms have been certified by that program so far: Holiday Tree Farms of Corvallis, Yule Tree Farms of Aurora, Silver Mountain Christmas Trees of Sublimity and Santa & Sons Christmas Trees of Philomath.
In addition to bragging rights within the industry, both programs hope to give growers an edge in the marketplace: Hang tags identifying their trees as sustainably produced.
The goal is not so much to differentiate them from uncertified trees as to catch the eye of consumers who may be considering buying an artificial Christmas tree — or no tree at all.
Hearts and minds
Last year, Americans bought 27 million real Christmas trees with a retail value of $976 million, according to the National Christmas Tree Association. Another 8.2 million artificial trees were sold at the same time, to the tune of $530 million.
That’s valuable market share that tree farmers would like to take back, but to do so they’ll have to overcome the perceptions that drive some people to purchase ersatz evergreens.
“The bottom line is we know there are factors that drive people away from real trees,” said National Christmas Tree Association spokesman Rick Dungey. “The reasons people state for not choosing to buy and display a farm-grown tree are constantly reinforced by the people who sell fake trees.”
Many of those reasons, Dungey said, have to do with the mistaken belief that millions of Christmas trees are being chopped down in national forests. In reality, the vast majority are planted, tended for five to 10 years and then harvested by commercial tree farmers on private land.
Dungey likes to tell the story of a focus group participant who announced that she always used an artificial tree because buying a real one would be “a sin against nature.” The same woman then complained that the box her tree came in wasn’t made of thicker cardboard.
“You’re just dumbfounded by the disconnect,” Dungey said.
The National Christmas Tree Association was hoping to combat some of those misperceptions through a promotional campaign like those for other agricultural commodities (think “Got Milk?” or “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner”).
But the USDA put that idea on indefinite hold last month amid Republican allegations that the industry-endorsed checkoff program amounted to a “Christmas tree tax” by the Obama administration.
A national sustainability certification program may be unrealistic because of widely varying conditions in major growing states such as Oregon, North Carolina, Michigan and Pennsylvania, Dungey said. But he thinks regional initiatives like the two under way in the Northwest are good for the whole industry.
“Any effort to reinforce to consumers how we grow trees and how we recycle them is good, and we should do more of that,” he said.
“That’s a story we need to keep telling over and over and over again.”
Going for the green
The stakes are high in Oregon, the nation’s leading producer of Christmas trees.
Last year’s gross sales totaled $91 million on 6.4 million trees. Those numbers are down sharply from 2008, when Oregon growers sold 7.3 million trees for $110 million.
A certification program by itself is unlikely to turn those numbers around. But it could start to make inroads with the tree-buying public, possibly persuading some holdouts to choose farm-grown over artificial.
Bryan Ostlund, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association, said a credible and widely recognized certification effort would “give that stamp of approval that consumers can say, ‘Hey, I like what this farm is doing.’”
It could also position certified growers to lock in some big contracts with chain retailers such as Home Depot and Lowe’s, both of which have already moved to selling sustainably produced lumber.
“They can articulate a piece like this as kind of a value-added,” Ostlund said. “Those legitimate environmental messages will continue to be a big thing in the future.”
Two programs or one?
It’s not yet clear which of the two certification programs will emerge as the industry standard in the Northwest or whether the two might merge somewhere down the line.
For now, at least, there’s a certain amount of jockeying for position.
The Socially and Environmentally Responsible Farm program boasts that its standards were developed with input from a broad array of interests, including labor groups, environmental organizations and Oregon State University Extension Service specialists. Under an arrangement with SERF, growers contract with employees of the Oregon and Washington agriculture departments to inspect their farms for compliance.
Standards used by the Coalition of Environmentally Conscious Growers, while similar to SERF’s, were developed primarily by the growers themselves. The coalition uses a private auditing firm, Freer Consulting of Seattle, to do inspections.
“I’m not going to say they’re going to be biased, but I don’t know that anyone hasn’t passed that inspection,” said Chal Landgren, an OSU Extension Service Christmas tree specialist who helped develop the SERF program.
Joe Sharp, managing partner of Yule Tree Farms and one of the organizers of the Coalition of Environmentally Conscious Growers, rejects any suggestion that the organization’s certification criteria are watered down. He also called Freer a highly reputable company with the expertise to conduct rigorous onsite inspections.
“We went to the state and asked them to do it, and at the eleventh hour they decided they did not want to be part of our program,” Sharp said. “I would take our inspectors and put their credentials against the guys from the state.”
Both men, however, agree that the two certification efforts aren’t trying to compete with each other — they’re trying to get the message to consumers that farm-raised Christmas trees, not artificial ones, are the environmentally responsible choice.
The industry as a whole has begun to move beyond the “scorched earth” approach of years past, and to some extent the voluntary sustainability standards simply capture a shift that was already happening.
“Everybody recognized the Christmas tree industry had to step up and be more resonsible in their practices,” Sharp said. “You see all kinds of water and soil conservation things now that you didn’t see 20 years ago.”
But certification also carries a message to laggards that some of the old ways just won’t cut it anymore, especially when it comes to haphazard erosion controls and indiscriminate spraying of agricultural chemicals.
As Landgren put it, “Our hope was to make some growers more thoughtful in considering their options.”
Four years in, the coalition program appears to be paying some dividends.
“We get calls from across the country from people who have seen these certified trees and want to know where they can get one,” Sharp said. “At least we’re giving ourselves a chance.”
And Sunrise, in its first year of marketing trees with SERF hang tags, is hoping certification translates into higher prices on the retail lot.
“From a business perspective, my hope is (that) we would be able to sell our trees for more money,” Malone said. “Being careful takes attention and time.”
Rick Fletcher, a longtime OSU Extension Service specialist who worked on the SERF program, hopes it does pay off for the Malones. He calls the Kings Valley growers “poster children” for sustainable Christmas tree farming and said certification is a good way to recognize their innovative efforts.
And over time, he added, it may even nudge the rest of the industry a little further in the same direction.
“You raise the standard with something like this, and people like Pat and Betty are rewarded,” he said.
“Eventually, it’s going to lift everybody up.”
Contact Bennett Hall at 541-758-9529 or firstname.lastname@example.org.