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An Essex Christmas Tree Farm Battles Flood Damage 

click to enlarge Bob White
  • Bob White

When Whites Christmas Tree Farm in Essex opens for business later this month, children will run up and down the rows of perfectly trimmed Fraser and balsam firs, looking for perfect specimens. The parking lot will be filled with pickups and wagons ready to haul them home. For now, though, the place is tranquil, with a backdrop of foliage glowing red and orange. It’s quiet, that is, until a chain saw starts up — preparing to cut down would-be Christmas trees before their time.

Co-owners Bob and Joan White say the unprecedented flooding their farm suffered last July will likely cause the deaths of half the standing trees in their 35-acre field. Though the flood happened months ago, the Whites still feel its repercussions as they clear out the dead and dying trees.

Stories about flood damage are nothing new in Vermont. But for Christmas tree farmers, who contribute an estimated $15 million annually to Vermont’s economy, water can wipe out nearly a decade of labor.

According to the National Weather Service, May 2013 brought 8.74 inches of rainfall — twice the amount of the proceeding May. June 2013 saw 9.86 inches, a three-fold increase over that month the previous year. It was on this soggy ground that more than two inches of rain fell over two hours on July 4, affecting the area around the Whites’ farm and, more significantly, upriver from it.

The Browns River overflowed its banks and swallowed the farm that day, depositing silt and debris on the trees. It then settled into standing water up to six feet deep, which remained in some parts of the field for as long as 10 days before finally draining.

Bob White says that the farm’s proximity to the river routinely leads to flooding in the spring, but that does little damage to the trees when they’re still dormant. This year’s flood, however, occurred during a stage of the trees’ critical growth, when their roots were actively supporting bud growth up top. The saturated soils either caused the roots to drown or resulted in Phytophthora infection, aka root rot.

A look through the Whites’ fields reveals that much of the low-lying areas have already been cleared of dead trees. Trees that showed immediate stress in the weeks following the flood were the first to be removed. Since then, trees have continued to die off, but it takes a trained eye to discern the ones in trouble. As White leads a Seven Days reporter on a tour, he points out a healthy tree with dark green needles for reference. Then he indicates another one nearby.

“Do you see that tree right next to it with the off color?” he asks, pointing to needles that are more teal than dark green.

“That tree right there is dead,” White says. “If you come back in another week, that tree would look very different.”

In fact, there are teal-colored trees everywhere. White explains that a sickly tree may appear fine, but as soon as the customer cuts it and brings it home, the needles will drop off within a few days. A Christmas tree farm relies on its reputation for repeat customers, and White knows he can’t leave any trees standing that aren’t in perfect health. So the field now shows wide, empty pockets, with the occasional survivor in the middle.

“A tree like this has got a bad branch in it, but the tree itself is still alive and thriving, and we don’t know why,” White says.

Passing a crew member on break, he asks, “How many cut today, Todd?”

“I don’t know,” Todd replies. “A couple hundred.”

The sound of the chain saw starts up again.

Vermont weather has been causing havoc in all areas of agriculture for several years now, as the media have amply documented. Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 garnered the most attention for its destructive flooding, especially in central Vermont. Other wet periods, particularly last spring, forced farmers to replant multiple times or, in some cases, to give up on crops for the year. The destruction of a crop is a financial and emotional setback for the season. But most farmers have the potential to start afresh and recover the following year.

A Christmas tree farmer, by contrast, invests nearly a decade in each marketable tree. Cut-your-own operations buy 5-year-old seedlings that are roughly 18 inches tall. Fir trees take approximately eight more years of growing on-site to reach market size, during which they require the annual maintenance of weed control, mowing, fertilizing and pruning. Even if White starts replanting next spring, it will take eight to 10 years before his inventory reaches the 50,000 full-size trees he had at the start of the year.

The trees were uninsured; White says he’s unaware of any insurance available for Christmas trees.

A native Vermonter, White has been growing Christmas trees since 1990. He says he enjoys what he does and believes that over the years he has learned to grow robust specimens. Asked if he’s going to put in the decade to regrow his field, White sighs. “I am 55 years old,” he replies. “When I get to be 65, do I still want to be doing this?”

Spring floods are part of riverside agriculture. Most farmers have adapted their schedules to the floods, and some even benefit from nutrients and silt left behind. But the inundations in Vermont have become more common, and much more intense. White says he has seen three “hundred-year” floods on his property since 2011. Tropical Storm Irene in August of that year did not cause him much damage, but intense floods in April 2011 did. Silt and grasses were deposited on the branches, and it took a crew of six using brooms, commercial leaf blowers and high volumes of water about a month to clean them off. Ultimately, though, the trees survived.

The second hundred-year flood occurred in May of this year with the same outcome: big mess, little permanent damage. As long as the water comes between September and early May, White says, the trees are fine. But his third hundred-year flood came in July, at peak growth time.

White’s tree farm is not the only one to have suffered from flooding. Jim Horst, spokesman for the New Hampshire-Vermont Christmas Tree Association, reports that other low-lying tree farms in the region have dealt with flooding during nondormancy periods in the past few years. Glove Hollow Christmas Tree Farm in Plymouth, N.H., lost 9000 trees to Irene, and others, particularly in the Londonderry area, had significant damage.

Despite such incidents, says Horst, the Christmas tree industry in Vermont is generally doing well. Rain can be a boon to trees on higher ground — even White saw excellent growth this year on his 12-acre hillside field, which is separate from his main field.

Nationally, the Christmas tree industry is worth $1.07 billion, according to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center at Iowa State University. Oregon, North Carolina and Michigan are the top three producers in the U.S., while Vermont has just 3600 acres devoted to Christmas trees compared to Oregon’s 65,000. Horst says Vermont’s wholesome image is a draw for out-of-staters, and White tells of customers coming from as far away as New Jersey just to buy his trees. Although no data are available for the total value of cut-your-own retail operations, the National Christmas Tree Association states that 24.5 million live Christmas trees were sold in 2012, 14 percent of which were cut-your-own.

The future of the Whites’ farm is uncertain. Bob White estimates monetary losses to be at least several hundred thousand dollars. All the dying and suspect trees will be pulled this fall, and he’ll place an order for new seedlings for next spring. White’s other livelihood is a 120-acre maple-syrup operation, which keeps him busy from January to April. Prices and yields have been good in the past few years, though he says any profits from maple this year will most likely go to offset extra expenses for the Christmas tree business.

“If we are really lucky this year, we may break even. But I doubt it,” White says.

He’s concerned that the Phytophthora fungus, which has found a favorable home in the roots of the damaged Frasers, will stay in the soil and cause problems for future trees planted there. White has other varieties of firs, such as Canaan and Korean, which are more moisture tolerant. But the Frasers are the most popular for Christmas trees, and he’s not willing to give up on them.

White is keen to let the public know he’s open for business this year and has plenty of healthy trees ready to harvest. When those are cut, though, fewer mature trees will be available for a few years.

“When the other field comes in in two years, we’ll have tons of trees,” says White, “but this is almost a permanent setback.”

Does he think it will put him out of business?

“I hope not, but if it doesn’t turn around, it might put us out of business for a few years,” White says. “Not this year or next year, but we’ll see. We’ll move a thousand, 2000 trees out this year, and that will pay the expenses. Hopefully, the death [of the trees] will settle down, and we’ll plant next spring and start all over again.”

The original print version of this article was headlined "Flooded Firs"

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Laura Sorkin

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