Joni Keefe
Special to The Aspen Times

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December 22, 2013
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Farms Finest: Harvesting holiday traditions

Anyone who has grown up on a farm, like I did, understands what it takes to generate a sustainable living. My family’s farm was in Vermont, and every bit of the land was used efficiently. With each changing season, we always managed to have a crop, even during the snowy winters. During December, a bitterly cold month, the agriculture work continued with the harvesting of Christmas trees.

The holiday season would officially begin when the farm donated a big evergreen to the village. A team of steel-shod draft horses, pulling a bobsled, made the much-anticipated delivery. With pride, the specimen was placed prominently by the village’s church.

Locals celebrated by having a tree-decorating evening with free hot coco served at The Inn, and on Christmas Eve candlelight church services concluded with candles being placed in the snowbank.

December was also when the yard around the farmhouse transformed into a sales center for Christmas trees and wreaths. Rows of freshly cut evergreens were arranged neatly by their size and variety. The cash register consisted of a cigar box resting on the mantel above the kitchen’s fireplace.

My job was simple: I was to be the runner to make change in that cigar box. I took great concern with the financial accuracy in this assignment because any Christmas gifts I was to receive depended greatly on the proceeds inside that box.

Today it is not often that we still find small farms supplying their own communities with holiday trees. Instead, the nearly 30 million trees needed annually largely come from commercial tree production.

Trees are now sold at food markets, by civic clubs and in various private sales lots that begin to appear after Thanksgiving. You might be purchasing your tree locally, but the tree is most likely grown elsewhere. The bulk of commercially cut trees are harvested from six states, with the leaders being Oregon, Michigan and North Carolina.

Noble Tree Farm, in Oregon, is one of the world’s largest growers with more than 5,000 acres and 6 million trees in production. Several varieties are grown, including Scotch pine, Douglas fir and noble fir.

Annual shaping and pruning work is all done by hand, and it takes six to 10 years for a tree to be ready for harvesting, depending on variety. Maintenance requires a lot of old-fashioned hand labor, but the harvesting process is totally high-tech. This is performed like a ballet dance with helicopters lifting bundles of cut trees. They precisely sweep them nonstop off the mountains onto the beds of semi-trucks waiting in line. Often the pilots must cut through a thick Northwest fog that limits visibility. To see a video of these orchestrated skills in flying, go to YouTube and type in “Amazing helicopter delivering Christmas trees.”

You might ask: How sustainable is this agriculture endeavor? The Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association says that for every tree harvested, three seedlings are planted, and all varieties require maintaining good soil for growing, crop rotation and stump grinding after harvesting to allow nutrients to compost quickly.

These large tree-farming operations do use fertilizers and pesticides, and the large-scale delivery operations are not eco-friendly. With due credit, though, it is to be noted that growing forest crops are a huge clean-oxygen producer and are a good way to keep land in agriculture production.

If you want to buy a totally eco-friendly holiday tree, look for ones that are certified organic or “naturally grown,” which use methods such as composting for fertilizer versus chemicals. LocalHarvest.org is a site that can help locate where these trees are sold. By choosing real over artificial, you have made the best decision for the environment no matter what. Real trees will decompose naturally when the celebrations are over!

No matter where your perfect tree came from, it will always be special. Sharing the selection and decorating of a tree with loved ones creates special memories that will last far beyond one season. This is a tradition for many to cherish and is another important agriculture industry to support. Happy holidays!

Joni Keefe moved to the Roaring Fork Valley after a career in landscape design. She is passionate about local food and agriculture. For more information, her website is Farmsfinest.com, or follow her on Twitter. Connect at joni@farmsfinest.com.


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The Aspen Times Updated Dec 22, 2013 12:00AM Published Dec 22, 2013 02:52PM Copyright 2013 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.