Northwest heat wave scorched Christmas trees, too

·8 min read

Christmas is more than five months away, and you're probably thinking more about sunscreen than stockings and the AC more than the Christmas tree, but should you be?

The historic heat wave that roasted the Northwest last month is threatening to Ebenezer Scrooge future holiday seasons, and it's hitting tree farmers right on their most valuable crop.

"How devastating will it be? I mean, that's our crop," Cubby Steinhart told AccuWeather in an exclusive interview. "There isn't really another crop," he continued, adding, "We're hopeful that we can stay within 10% of our projected goals for the harvest this year. We're going to lose some trees, and if we just lose this year's crop even with our attempts, it'll be over a million dollars just on this year's crop alone."

In this photo taken Nov. 8, 2011, Brown pine needles are mixed in with the green on a dying tree at David Barfield's Tinsel Time Christmas Tree Farm in New Caney, Texas. Mother Nature delivered the Grinch in the form of a historic drought that has killed thousands of trees on Barfield’'s farm and across Texas and Oklahoma. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)

Steinhart is the co-owner of McKenzie Farms and Happy Holiday Farms, a wholesale Christmas tree provider that ships about 800,000 trees to stores and lots across the United States and Mexico, according to the Portland Tribune.

Located in Estacada, Oregon, the trees at McKenzie Farms took a calamitous hit from the record-shattering heat wave that broiled the Northwest in late June. Estacada is located about 30 miles southeast of Portland.

"I never like to be an alarmist, but I said right away it was probably the most devastating thing I've seen in my 40-plus years in the Christmas tree business," Steinhart said.

A worker takes a break from loading Christmas trees onto a truck at McKenzie Farms on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2020, in Oregon City, Ore."The season is running approximately six to seven days ahead of what we've seen in the past. We've never seen the demand like we've had this year," said McKenzie Cook, who ships between 1.8 million and 2 million trees a year combined from McKenzie Farms in Oregon and Happy Holiday Christmas Trees in North Carolina. (AP Photo/Paula Bronstein)

From June 26-28, daily high temperatures in Estacada reached 109 degrees Fahrenheit, 112 F and 116 F, respectively, essentially torching the growth of Christmas trees. The heat shattered high-temperature records throughout the state, threatening to ransack the country's Christmas tree supply in the process.

The trickle-down of this year's Christmas tree doom could be felt in minor ways this season, but the hiked-up prices would be more likely felt in future years if the trees don't bounce back as farmers hope they do.

Oregon is the country's largest producer of Christmas trees, with varieties such as the Douglas fir and the Nordmann fir considered some of the most desirable trees. Data from 2014 shared by the Ag Marketing Resource Center showed Oregon far outpacing every other state with 8.5 million trees produced, more than 42% of the country's output.

According to the National Christmas Tree Association, approximately 25-30 million real Christmas trees are sold each year, with about 350,000 total acres of land in the U.S. dedicated to tree production.

Damage from the heat manifests in two primary ways, Steinhart explained: on the sides and to the tops of the trees.

The impact will likely leave a mark on the 2021 Christmas season, particularly for growers in the Portland area, where the heat was most intense. Steinhart, however, said many trees from this year's harvest could potentially be salvaged by favorable weather conditions in the coming months.

"When the top has been brown, we can't harvest those trees. You can't shave it off and have nothing," he said. "The other part of it is, in all the species, if we're planting 4-8 inches of growth -- of lateral growth, that's down the sides -- we only end up with two? Instead of getting 12 inches of growth on top, we get 6? It's really going to set us back a year."

Cubby Steinhart, co-owner of McKenzie Farms, explained to AccuWeather that the financial ramifications of this summer's heat wave in Oregon could cost farmers millions.

Steinhart estimated that 30% to 40% of the trees will be set back at least one year in the growth process, and maybe another 10% to 15% over two years.

The bigger effect, however, may not be felt until next year and the years that follow.

But Steinhart thinks this year's crop will not be as hard hit as future crops will be at his farm. "What got hit the worst for everybody was the 2021 plantings."

Steinhart explained that one of the most impacted plantings would be of the seeds for the Noble fir species. Those seeds come from high elevation areas such as Mount Saint Helens and are therefore more vulnerable to high temperatures, he said, compared to the seeds of a Douglas fir.

"The Noble fir [trees] are all brown right now," he said. "Anywhere north of Corvallis, pretty much everyone's transplants look brown," he said, referring to a town that is about 80 miles southwest of Portland and closer to the Pacific coast than Estacada. "But they're not dead yet."

Firs generally take seven to 10 years to reach full maturation, while the older trees are more likely to bounce back, despite the heat impacts.

The two types of heat-wave-related damage that can affect trees are heat damage - which affects the inner needles - and sunscalding, or essentially a sunburn for a tree. Fir sunburn can affect the aesthetics of a tree in how it browns the new growth on the outside, but that damage can be sheared off. Inner-needle damage, on the other hand, can be fatal.

For the older Noble firs, the 5-year-old to 9-year-old trees, Steinhart said almost all the damage from the heat was sustained exclusively on the outside, which is encouraging for McKenzie Farms. However, it will still take another few weeks and months to see how the trees respond and if healthy growth returns.

Fields of Christmas trees at McKenzie Farms on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2020, in Oregon City, Ore. Wholesale growers and small farms alike say customers are showing up earlier than normal and there are more of them. More Americans are staying home for the holidays amid coronavirus restrictions and want a new - or renewed - tradition to end a dreary year on a happier note. (AP Photo/Paula Bronstein)

More than anything, Steinhart simply said that tree farmers could use some rain. He said surviving until the start of the rainy season, which he anticipates coming by mid-September, will be crucial.

Another heat wave, however, would be crushing. Or as Steinhart said, it would "devastate this industry for many years to come."

"If we get 95s and up to 100 again in August, then we may lose a lot of this year's harvestable crops and that would be devastating even more financially," he said. "We're having enough trouble meeting the demand right now because we're in kind of a short supply to begin with."

That short supply could be felt by consumers as well.

While McKenzie Farms made a promise to its large customers, big-box accounts such as garden centers, that it would not raise prices this year because of the heat, the losses will need to be recouped in coming years.

With that, he said that he hopes that the trees his farm sells to big box stores won't be overpriced to customers in advance of future years' increases. Right now, he said, the market is in a very good spot, and there should still be enough supply, thanks to the trees coming out of the Midwest, Canada and the mid-Atlantic.

Thanks to that healthy supply, customers' wallets aren't likely to feel the sting of a shortage this year.

For future years, Steinhart reiterated that he hopes stores wouldn't take advantage of this year's heat wave to increase tree prices.

"But it's just going to increase the demand for trees back East and up in the North if we're not able to come up with all the trees we need to out West," he said.

Overall, Steinhart said he trusts the industry to continue thriving as it has in decades past. The need for a Christmas tree will never wane as long as Dec. 25 remains on the calendar. Plus, there are the environmental perks of Christmas-tree growing -- Steinhart said one tree provides enough oxygen for 18 people -- that make the industry environmentally important.

"It's a great industry. We'll survive. This hurts, it's pretty painful, took a few days to recover," he said. "And then like any farmers in any industry, we get up off our butts and go fight it the best we can. And we'll be OK."

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