Saturday, December 16, 2017

A merry year for Christmas tree growers

            Jean Bento knows that the weather is the primary factor determining the success or failure of local Christmas tree farms. As the owner of Patchet Brook Tree Farm in Tiverton, she’s happy to report that the weather in 2017 has been ideal.
            “The weather affects almost everything about this business,” she said.
            Bento explained that the rainy spring came along at just the right time to stimulate growth and keep newly-planted seedlings alive, but there wasn’t so much rain that it caused a fungus to build up on the needles. The summer wasn’t hot enough to dry out the trees or make the needles susceptible to dropping too soon. And the weather on Thanksgiving weekend – the first big weekend for sales – was perfect for families to visit local Christmas tree farms and tag or cut their trees.
            “It’s definitely been a good year for growing Christmas trees,” agreed Eric Watne, owner of Clark’s Christmas Tree Farm in Tiverton and president of the Rhode Island Christmas Tree Growers Association. “Rain in spring is key, but you also need some rain in the summer, too. When fir trees think they’re going to die, which will happen when we don’t get rain in the summer, they start producing pine cones, which is their way of propagating the species. That’s bad for Christmas trees because the tree’s nutrients go to the cones and the needles die.”
            That didn’t happen this year.
It also wasn’t a bad year for pests, according to University of Rhode Island entomologist Heather Faubert, despite concerns that gypsy moth caterpillars were going to feast on the needles.
“The gypsy moths didn’t turn out to be as bad as we feared,” she said. “Spider mites and scale insects are the other pests that can be a concern for Christmas tree growers. A few aren’t a problem, but if you get high numbers of them, the trees lose their color and the needles start to drop.”
            The conditions were so good this year, in fact, that the growers said that any trees negatively affected by last year’s drought have probably recovered.
            The only concerns Christmas tree farmers face this year have to do with competition from artificial trees, which have improved in appearance in recent years, and from the big box stores and street-corner sellers that typically get their trees from Quebec or Nova Scotia, where they are cut down as early as October.
            Jan Eckhart, owner of Sweet Berry Farm in Middletown, isn’t worried. He said nothing can compare to locally grown trees. And besides, “Christmas trees are a renewable resource. It’s like growing broccoli. The freshest you can possibly get is a farm grown tree from right here in Rhode Island.”
            While the window for selling Christmas trees is condensed into a few busy weeks, the growers agree that it’s their favorite time of year.
            “When people start showing up to buy their trees, they’re in such a great mood,” said Watne. “I get to be a little part of everybody’s Christmas. It’s a month-long Christmas party.”

This article first appeared in the Newport Mercury on December 14, 2017.

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