Local Christmas tree farm branches out to grow new species

Matt Martin
December 20, 2013

Every year Christmas tree farmers lose a portion of their crop to a fungus that attacks the root of the tree.  As Matt Martin reports, one tree farm in the Southern Tier has started planting a species that seems to be more resistant to the disease.

Dave Weil of Empire Evergreens in Painted Post is putting the final touches on a Christmas tree he has just sold.     

"This is the final product.  Ten years of work have gone into this moment when we hand it off to the customer and they can take it home and put it in their living room.”

After years of hard work and dedication, Weil says it can be hard to watch his trees leave the farm.

“It actually pains me to see the fields cleared out," says Weil, "And yes I know they’ll grew right back and they’ll be big again next year for the ones that are six feet now will be our 7 and 8 footers next year but it is difficult as a farmer to see.”

He also says it is difficult to see trees die.  There are many things that could kill a tree but a fungus called phytophthora is a constant threat to farmers.  It lives in the soil and attacks the tree’s root system.

Weil added that, “Any wet soil is a potentially good host to the pathogen of the phytophthora root rot.  And you cannot remove it from the soil aside from fumigation which is cost prohibitive on a big scale.”

Elizabeth Lamb is a professor at Cornell University.  She works with Christmas tree farmers on how to protect their trees from disease.

She describes phytopthora like having a problem with your circulatory system. 

“It’s affecting the ability of the plant to take up water.  And eventually you’ll see a color change in the tree because it’s not getting the nutrients and water it needs to survive.”

That’s why tree farmers across the country have started planting Turkish Fir.  They hope it will be more resistant to phytophthora.

Ricky Bates is a professor at Penn State University and studies Christmas trees. He says that Turkish fir are very pretty trees.  Adding that, "The needles are nice and very glossy and a very shinny needle.”

Bates planted 3,000 Turkish Firs at 10 different sites.  One in each of the major Christmas tree growing regions in the U.S. 

Bates says that Turkish Fir isn’t new to the U.S. but it has never been grown commercially and he is hoping his study will show it can be profitable for growers.

And one major benefit is that Turkish Fir has proven to be more resistant to phytopthora.

Bates says that could be good for farmers,“Hopefully it will be a crop that growers can make a little more profit on and not have to struggle with the same kind of disease issues that they do now with some species.”

At Empire Evergreen there are twelve rows of trees that stretch for a quarter mile. They stand only eight to ten inches tall.  A Charlie Brown Christmas tree would look big by comparison.  These were planted back in April to determine how well the species will grow in the area.

The Turkish is a slow growing tree.  And Dave Weil knows he is taking a risk by growing it.

“If it takes ten years that’s too slow I really want a return in seven to eight years and get the next crop in and growing.”

But Weil understands it’s a useful research project.  And says the risk is just a normal part of doing business with Mother Nature.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Phytophthora as a bacteria, it is a fungus.