Visions of Christmas Trees

Meredith Cowart, as a child, on her family's Christmas tree farm.

Walking through our old Christmas tree plantation, the fragrance of balsam fir evokes memories of dragging freshly cut trees to the baler, riding on the top of a wagon full of trees, and sharing a pot of chili with a crew of exhausted, laughing workers while the snow comes down outside. Growing up on a Christmas tree farm taught my sister and me just what our dad hoped: that nature is not something you just look at from behind a window, but also something you cut, drag, shear, mow, fertilize, bale, burn, and plant.

But while the smell reminds me of crisp rows of trimmed balsam firs, today our plantation feels more like a cross between a hellish jungle and a magical Narnia. Doing his best to push his way through the 30-foot high balsam thicket, my dad reminds me how this happened. “When you and your sister went to college, we lost our cheap labor,” he said. Lacking anyone to inflict character development upon, our parents gradually abandoned the 15-acre operation. Today, we are left with this overgrown 10 acres and another 5 acres of sparse trees, ranging wildly in height from 4 to 25 feet.

Within the next few years, I plan to return home to maintain at least a small Christmas tree plantation. But can I, and should I, return these trees to their former state? Or, now that the trees have escaped our control, would it be more practical to let them grow into timber?

To investigate the details of this trees-or-timber question, I consulted our family’s longtime forester, Wilmer Brandt. Surveying the overgrown 10-acre section, Brandt didn’t hesitate to answer. “The land is growing sawlogs,” he said. “Why would you waste all that accrued value?”

The trees are too large to be sold as Christmas trees, yet too small to sell for timber. If we clearcut and replant before the trees are sawlog size, we won’t make any profit on the value that has accumulated over the past 10 years. Brandt estimates that in another 20 years, many of the trees will be sawlog size: 8 inches in diameter at the large end, or about 3 inches larger than they are now. At that point, we could conduct a merchantable thinning by cutting out every third row or so.

I asked Brandt if we could speed up growth by conducting a nonmerchantable thinning now. Here, again, he said to let nature takes its course. While the lower branches are beginning to overlap, the crowns are far from it. In forester terms, the “live crown ratio” is still about 80 percent; that is, about 80 percent of the trunk still has branches with live green needles. This is a clear sign that the trees are still receiving enough light to grow both up and out. We won’t thin these trees until the live crown ratio is about 30 percent.

The competition will indeed slow growth, but Brandt told me this will improve the value of our future sawlogs. As they grow larger and begin to shade one another, the trees will begin to selfprune: the lower limbs will be shaded out and fall off. Having fewer branches means the logger will spend less time limbing the tree and the sawlogs will have fewer knots.

The overgrown trees do represent one opportunity for a small, immediate financial return: balsam brush. This November, we’ll sell the fragrant lower branches of some trees to a local buyer, who will in turn sell them to producers of wreaths, garlands, and coffin blankets.

Brandt convinced me that good things come to people who wait. The only problem is that I won’t have a field ready to replant until I’m almost 60. So if I want to cut, drag, shear, mow, fertilize, bale, burn, and plant in the near future, the remaining five acres are my best hope. Fortunately, the trees here are small enough and widely-spaced enough that by culling the largest trees and shearing the rest, the 6-to-10-footers will be ready for sale this winter. I can’t put in the time this year, and we can’t let the management lapse for another five, so we found a local grower willing to lease this section for the next five years, cutting out some of the largest trees and maintaining the rest for wholesale harvest. In the meantime, we can plant young balsam firs, so that when I move back home I’ll be riding on top of wagon-loads of baled trees once again.

 
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