This Christmas season, Jeri Seifert's Scotch pines do not look festive. A few years ago, these bright green quintessential Christmas trees with 1-inch needles boasted sturdy branches, perfect for displaying heavy, colorful ornaments and twinkling lights.
Today, her pines are dry, brown in some spots and susceptible to insect infestations thanks to the California drought.
Scotch pines, according to the National Christmas Tree Association, are the most common Christmas tree variety purchased in the United States. Of the five species of trees that Seifert grows at Silveyville Christmas Tree Farm, located in Dixon, Calif., about a 30-minute drive west of Sacramento, she says her customers love Scotch Pines, hands-down.
"I have customers who buy them every year, and this year they've been coming in and saying, 'Oh, no! Is this because of the drought?'" Seifert said. "I have to explain that because of the lack of moisture and heat, they're more susceptible to disease and insects."
Four-hundred miles south in Simi Valley, Calif., Marilyn and Donald Cameron, veteran owners of Christmas Ranch Tree Farms, haven't observed any brown trees, but over the course of the four-year drought, they have been forced to cut watering by three-quarters. Three years ago, the Camerons' 15 acres of Monterey pines, Aleppo pines and Leyland cypress were getting 2 gallons per week per tree. Today, that number is down to 2 quarts.
"Obviously, the trees are not growing as fast," said Donald Cameron. "The hotter it gets, the harder it gets to grow certain things, especially trees."
As El Niño pours down rain on California, many are hailing it as a Christmas miracle. But after four years of dry weather, much of the greenery and agriculture in the state has suffered—and Christmas tree farms are no exception.
Rick Dungey of the National Christmas Tree Association said weather patterns affect Christmas tree farms, just like all crops.
"[The] impact is mainly on young seedlings recently planted, not so much trees that have been growing in a field for a number of years," he said.
It's not all bad news. Raising a Christmas tree can take anywhere from three to 15 years for a seedling to reach 8 feet in height. Sam Minturn, executive director of the California Christmas Tree Association, said tree farmers have the long growing season as a buffer against changing conditions.
"The good news is that I don't know of any farms that went out of business, but many of them had increased costs to obtain the water they needed," Minturn said. "I've talked to many of our California growers, and they all say they raised their prices a little and didn't lose sales but saw an increase over last year."
Overall, the percentage of Christmas trees grown in California is small. Minturn said 90 percent of the trees sold in California come from neighbors to the north. Chances are, the pre-cut trees lined up in front of grocery stores and gas stations came from a farm in the Pacific Northwest.
Both Oregon and Washington state have faced drought this year, too, although not as bad as California. Rainfall from April through June of this year was just half the normal amount across Oregon.
For those who don't want to cut their own tree, Seifert sells pre-cut trees harvested from Oregon and Washington at her farm. Some of her customers have remarked that the trees seem drier and are not lasting as long, she said.
"They just look drier," she said. "I do everything in my power to make them last—re-cut them, put them in water, display them in water—but when those trees are cut in October and they've had so little water and cold, I can see a difference."
For farmers in California, the possibility of continued or future droughts means adapting. Donald Cameron, who is a member of the California Christmas Tree Association, authored an article on how to reduce water use on the farm so the water can be shared with other farmers. As Seifert looks ahead, she said she will plant more Monterey pine, a fast-growing breed that is more resistant to water stress and insects.
What about the national forest?
Another option for those in search of a holiday tree is to pull one out of a national forest, with a permit, of course.
For the last 20 years, Susan Kocher, a natural resources adviser with the University of California Cooperative Extension, and her family have ventured into the Lake Tahoe Basin forest in search of the perfect tree.
Although the number of trees coming out of national forests to be used as Christmas trees is relatively small, thinning smaller trees is a way to increase resilience as bigger trees face mortality due to the drought.
Although the Forest Service could not provide a total number for how many permits have been sold across California this year, in the Lake Tahoe Basin forest, Karen Kuentz, with the public affairs office, said that this year, 4,500 of the 5,000 available $10 permits were sold, up from 3,800 sold in 2014.
Interested parties can choose from red fir, white fir, Jeffrey pine, lodgepole pine, incense cedar and mountain hemlock. Potential Christmas trees can be no larger than 6 inches in diameter and must be within 10 feet of another green tree, according to Kuentz.
In addition to being cost-effective—a pre-cut or a cut-your-own tree from a local farm will run at least $30—sourcing a Christmas tree from a national forest has another benefit.
"Christmas tree permits are offered to the public in an effort to help reduce hazardous fuels that have built up over years of fire suppression," Kuentz said. "Removal of excessive amounts of small trees from the forest will help create a healthier forest over time."
For example, in the Sierra Nevada, where the Lake Tahoe Basin forest is located, drought has contributed to an explosion of tree mortality due to bark beetle activity.
Ponderosa pine, some firs in the southern Sierra and cedars in the northern Sierra are dying due to a beetle epidemic, Kocher said. Although beetles primarily like to munch on large trees, she added that it's likely that smaller trees—the ones that could be prime Christmas decoration holders—are also dying.
Thin forests of smaller trees mean less competition for water resources, which can help larger trees survive in times of drought and wildfire.
Californians considering whether to display a live tree are also thinking about the drought. A survey commissioned by the American Christmas Tree Association found that nearly 30 percent of people in the Golden State factored the ongoing drought into their tree-shopping plans. Nine percent said they would forgo a tree entirely.
Despite challenging conditions, demand for Christmas trees in California seems to be up. In Southern California, cold weather seems to have "gotten people in the mood to buy trees," said Marilyn Cameron. Disposable income also seems to have risen, as well.
She and her husband have brought on a partner to take over the business so they can consider retirement, but Marilyn Cameron said she doesn't think future droughts will kill off the business.
"We have customers that bought from us that first year who still buy tress from us now, and their children and their children buy trees from us," she said. "We're a part of so many people's Christmases."
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500