Christmas trees – memories created, supporting the local economy, but prices may be higher

If you haven’t started decorating the house, you may be deciding between an artificial tree or getting a real one. If you choose a real tree, this year there may be a shortage of having the best selection and deals may be harder to come by. With the Recession of 2008 and 2009, tree farmers were reluctant or unable to plant tree seedlings.

As supplies have dropped, the average price for trees has also increased. Sales data from the National Christmas Tree Association show that, between 2015 and 2018, retail prices rose 23% from $62 to $73 — including a 5% jump last year. A tree typically takes seven to ten years to mature into a six or seven-foot tree.

“There are some variations to that by tree varieties and location in general. But, its that long before a grower sees a harvestable crop,” said Tim O’Connor, executive director of the National Christmas Tree Association. “There are annual maintenance costs, there are certainly the challenges of growing a crop outdoors that all of agriculture is familiar with. There are bugs, there are diseases. There are the wet years, there are the dry years. It’s one of those challenges where you try to read the market that far out.”

Whether you are a fan of the smell of a real tree or prefer an artificial tree, a survey conducted by Nielsen found that three-quarters of American households display a tree, whether it is real or artificial.


However, the increase in price shouldn’t distract you from considering a real Christmas tree. With a real tree, there is the experience of going out with the family and picking out just the right tree. O’Connor likens it with two videos playing side-by-side.

On the one side is the family having the experience of getting in the car, going to the tree lot or the farm, and finding the right tree. Perhaps this is the year of not finding the perfect one where you have to put one side in the corner to hide the bad spot. O’Connor tells the story where one year, his family found a tree with a bird’s nest in it, and the kids loved it. Every year, they put back the bird’s nest, and the kids take turns putting it back into the new tree.

On the other side of the screen, mom or dad drags a dusty box with the tree from the basement, attic, or garage. On the way, they bang their head on the pipes or rafters, cusses, and slaps the tree up. Afterward, you spend a considerable amount of time rearranging the branches to make it look realistic.

Then, there is the question of the environmental impact of a real versus artificial tree. O’Connor points out that with an artificial tree, while you are reusing it every year, it is made from PVC plastic and aluminum or steel shipped from overseas, and eventually, it sits in a landfill for a very long time. A study conducted by WAP Sustainability Consulting on behalf of the A.C.T.A, which represents manufacturers of artificial trees, claims the environmental impact is lower than that of a real tree if you use the artificial tree for five or more years. The study contends that a real tree, which may end up in a landfill, has a bigger impact on water and energy use and has a more significant impact on greenhouse gases.

O’Connor points out real trees they are biodegradable, mulched, used in landscaping, and other things such as hiking trails. As was pointed out at the beginning of the article, seedlings are replanted for each one cut down, they are not cut down from wild forests on a large scale, said Bert Cregg, an expert in Christmas tree production and forestry at Michigan State University. Cregg stated that the study conducted by WAP Sustainability Consulting was too narrow in its parameters. He and O’Connor point out the effect on wildlife and the local economy.

“The fact that a real tree is grown by a farmer who is conducting their business in a local community,” said O’Connor. “They are buying goods and services. They are employing people.”

Besides, with the consumer trend of buying local and knowing where their food comes from. Real trees can fit into that perspective.

“You can learn the story of where your tree came from, grew it, and how it was cared for,” said O’Connor. ”There’s a whole lot about a tree that matches up with the trend that the consumer cares about today. Which is very different from the tree made by a big factory in a foreign country.”

If you do decide to purchase a real tree this year, here are a few tips for buying the tree. Touch it, observe it, and make it is not dried out and brittle or having needles falling off of it when you purchase it. It should be fresh and soft. The needles as you run your hand over it should stay on the tree. Then, you should put a new cut on the bottom of the trunk, right when you bring it home, and before you put it in the stand. Take off about an inch. Think of it as a fresh cut flower, and you have to keep that trunk underwater and allow it to drink and not go dry. If you do that, it will drink a lot of water for that first week or ten days, and don’t let it run out.

Climate Change Could Alter Farming Landscape in the U.S.

If 2019 is any indicator of what is to come, then producers will need to adapt their practices to climate change.

The impact could change production levels depending on the region, with some states becoming less productive, and others will see little to no change.

In an article published by the USDA for their magazine Amber Waves, they found a correlation between climate change and agricultural productivity. Changes in temperature and precipitation can have different effects on crop and livestock production. For crops, the Oury index is a measure of aridity and rainfall with regards to temperature, which is an effective indicator of climate conditions and crop growth. Heat stress to livestock fertility, weight, and feed efficiency are measured with a Temperature-Humidity Index. It found that “changes in THI (Temperature-Humidity Index) and the Oury index varied by U.S. region.”

The map below shows the potential impact on ag productivity, assuming a 2-degree Celsius temperature increase and a one-inch decrease in precipitation. The TFP, or “total factor productivity,” accounts for both production and the cost of inputs like seed, irrigation, fertilizer, labor, equipment, and other factors.

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The USDA states that some states have gradually adapted to the changes in average climate conditions over time and have adopted, “technologies or practices that can mitigate damage from adverse weather.” While average changes in temperature and precipitation may not have severe impacts on productivity if they fall within historical fluctuation ranges. In contrast, “unexpected weather shocks, such as severe droughts that fall outside the range of historical weather fluctuations, have more significant impacts on regional productivity.”

While the above is true, it appears that the USDA is avoiding some of the underlying causes of these fluctuations. In an article written by Helena Bottemiller Evich for Politico, the “topic has historically been too politically toxic in the traditionally conservative agriculture sector, which fears more regulation while also being extremely reliant on government programs.”

The same article also points out that the USDA currently is spending less than 1% of its budget to fight climate change. Bottemiller Evich theorizes that the reason could be the current administration’s hostility towards discussing climate change. She states, “When new tools to help farmers adapt to climate change are created, they typically are not promoted and usually do not appear on the USDA’s main resource pages for farmers or social-media postings for the public.”

Farmers and ranchers could be a major player in the effort to reduce climate change. Currently, there are USDA climate hubs that were established to assist farmers to deal with “weather extremes” (climate change) that are operating on a shoestring budget. There are studies by the government stating that, perhaps, we should pay producers to sequester carbon by changing their tillage practices. What if private companies paid producers?

These ideas will be discussed in the next few posts as they merit talking about them in-depth. Agriculture could be the solution and not the problem as people may perceive.






The 2019 Wheat Quality Council’s spring wheat tour: Great learning experience and my first professional gig

It’s shortly before 7 am, and we arrived at the first stop of the day. The sun is peeking through the clouds, it’s 63 degrees outside and the smell of morning dew is in the air. The only sounds you hear are the closing of the doors to the van and the birds far off into the distance. The four of us walk through the field, through the rows to different parts with yardsticks and a pen in hand.

“What did you get for row width?” asks Michelle.

“I got 8 inches,” I answer back, and the others agree.

Our first stop is a wheat field just outside the town of Starkweather, North Dakota. A small town with an estimated population of 117 in Ramsey County in the north-central portion of the state. It’s the third and last day of the 2019 Wheat Quality Council spring and durum wheat tour in North Dakota. We agreed to meet at 6:15 in front of the hotel and depart on our assigned route to scout fields and measure the estimated yield and condition of the wheat crop.  Today our van would make 10 stops. We are one of 13 other cars each assigned a color route departing from Devils Lake and ending in Fargo, North Dakota for the final tally and wrap-up.

The previous two days would take me from Fargo south through parts of Minnesota, then west on highway 11 through towns such as Lidgerwood, Oakes, lunch in Ellendale and overnight in Mandan. A total of 315 miles and stopping in 11 wheat fields taking measurements. The second day was north on Highway 83 to Minot and east on highway 2 through Rugby, the geographic center of North America and ending in Devils Lake, for 12 stops and 228 miles.67476065_10157418649124851_7223735164776480768_o

“We were on the purple route with 12 stops. Our average yield was 34 bushels per acre with a high of 43.5 and a low of 23.8,” states Michelle to the crowd gathered in the meeting room of the motel.

Each evening all the cars would give their recap of what they found, exciting stops on their routes and the overall yield for their route. Some groups reported driving along the Enchanted Highway, a stretch of highway in western North Dakota that has several large metal sculptures. Others stopped at decommissioned nuclear warhead silos or some that were not with soldiers in Humvees and 50-caliber guns on the backs. Everybody mentioned the good and not so good places that they ate lunch.

How we measure the fields

Prior to leaving for the first day, there was an orientation where we were given a yardstick, a booklet with information on the procedure for taking samples and a formula devised by NDSU Extension. Each individual usually walks about 40 to 50 yards into the field. Depending on your preference, you measure the width of the planted rows first or the number of heads in three feet of row. I started with a row width by placing the yardstick halfway down the stalks and seeing the distance between the middle of each stalk. Rows are usually planted in 7, 8 or 10 inches apart. On your yardstick, you note the width. Then I place the yardstick on the ground in the row and count the number of wheat heads in that 3-foot section and again note that on the yardstick. From there, you select 4 random heads and count the spikelets from different parts of the plant not counting the very bottom or top one. If there is a disease, you note that along with the development of the kernels.


Wheat head with individual sprinklets

“What did you get, Charles?” someone will ask.

“I got 85 and 10,” would be something I answered back with 85 being the number of heads and 10 the number of spikelets.

The assigned person takes an average of everybody and does the calculation based on these three factors. At the end of the day, we will take a calculated average based on the number of stops and note the high and low yields for the day.

To give context, a bushel of wheat yield weighs 60 pounds. One 60-pound bushel of wheat produces about 42 pounds of white flour (more for whole wheat since it uses the kernel), or 60 to 73 loaves of bread depending on size, or 42 pounds of pasta. The calculated yield for the entire tour was 43.1 bushels per acre. North Dakota ranks number one for production of spring and durum wheat and harvested 6.31 million bushels of wheat (about 49 bushels per acre). This year was lower due to wet weather and planting conditions, along with many fields not being planted or growing other crops.

In early Spring there is also a hard winter wheat tour in Kansas, as well as tours by various organizations for other crops. This year’s tour had 61 people participate from government organizations, flour mills and others in the industry, international organizations, and three journalists, like me, tweeting the results.

There is something so tranquil about standing in a wheat field with the gentle breeze blowing and watching the waves of grain move in the wind that made this worth it. It was an exhausting three days of getting to bed late to file a story and getting up early to have a couple of cups of coffee to function. I ate some great food and stayed at some so-so motels. However, it was a great learning experience writing the story, seeing firsthand how it is done, and talking with farmers over supper. I met some great people, and I hope to write about them in the future.