Program to Test New Christmas Tree Variety

12/21/2013 7:00 AM
By Paul Post New York Correspondent

CHARLTON, N.Y. — Twenty upstate New York Christmas tree growers have expressed interest in a pilot program to test the viability of Turkish fir in place of the popular Fraser fir.

The Christmas Tree Farmers Association of New York has obtained a $50,000 grant to try raising the new variety, which has the same traits as Fraser fir but is less susceptible to a serious disease commonly known as root rot.

“Conditions aren’t good here for Fraser fir,” said Mary Jean Packer, the association’s executive director. “Root rot doesn’t show up in the first years. So you can spend years weeding, shaping and fertilizing trees, wake up one day and they’re all dead.”

Chip Ellms, owner of Ellms Family Farm in Charlton, Saratoga County, said he lost 800 Fraser fir to root rot one year.

“The Fraser fir is so sensitive to moisture,” he said. “We have a difficult time with it on some of our fields. They’ll grow to 2 or 3 feet, some make it to 5 or 6 feet, and then die. So you want to have something else to go with. If the Turkish fir does well, it could be a good replacement for the Fraser fir.”

Turkish fir has similar characteristics to Fraser fir — shape, color, scent and needle retention — but grows better in upstate New York’s climate and soil, Packer said.

“If you look at a map, we’re at the same latitude as Turkey,” she said.

The grant comes from the New York Farm Viability Trust. Money will pay for a graduate student at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry to monitor test sites and teach growers how to raise Turkish fir.

Seven farms throughout New York will be selected for field trials. About 20 growers, including Ellms, have expressed interest in the program.

Farms will be evaluated for soil conditions and their proximity to one another. It’s doubtful that more than one grower from the same area would be selected, Packer said.

Test sites will likely be announced in February.

Turkish fir have two distinct disadvantages, she said.

“Deer absolutely love them,” Packer said. “Plus, they grow a little slower. It might take 12 or 13 years before they’re ready to cut, versus 10 for a Fraser fir. But if you can get past year four or five, it’s just as well to take your time because a Fraser fir might die. Then you’ve got nothing.”

The program is one of two important initiatives the association is working on.

This year, for the first time ever, the state budget included a $100,000 line item to promote New York-grown Christmas trees, the same as other agricultural products such as wine and maple syrup.

Specifically, the association is working with the state Department of Agriculture and Markets and Empire State Development to get more trees into the lucrative New York City market, which is currently dominated by trees from North Carolina and Canada.

Empire Evergreens of Corning, N.Y., sells trees in every metropolitan market across New York, including nearly 2,000 trees per year in New York City, owner David Weil said.

North Carolina has a corner on the New York City market because seven or eight years ago, its farmers planted an overabundance of trees on marginal land that wasn’t good enough for cash crops. Now those trees are ready to harvest, creating a glut that allows North Carolina farms to sell trees at a lower wholesale price — about $19 versus $26 for those grown in New York.

“They’re sending them north all the way to Canada,” Weil said.

However, Packer said there’s no comparison between a tree from North Carolina, which might have been cut in late October, to a tree harvested in New York.

“It’s fresh, you can smell the scent and its needles will last longer,” she said. “Those are things that create a memorable customer experience.”

Gaining a foothold at New York City farmers markets and the 19 city parks where trees are sold would give New York growers a huge boost, Packer said.

This year, plans called for encouraging concessionaires and vendors to sell more New York-raised trees. In 2014, Empire State Development might require sellers to offer a certain percent of New York trees as part of their contract to do business, she said.

More than 850 New York farms sell about 1 million Christmas trees annually.

“It’s going to be up to the individual farmers and concessionaires to work out the details,” she said. “The association has a list of all New York tree growers, the types of trees they raise and the numbers they have available.”

With the newly-allocated state funding, money could be used to print tags that identify trees as coming from New York.

“Some New York-grown trees are sold in the city, but consumers have no way of knowing it,” she said. “We want to make it more visible.”

Also, buyers would be given consumer care cards with tips on how to keep trees fresh and long-lasting.

Last year, New York growers donated about 500 trees to downstate victims of Hurricane Sandy, which generated considerable awareness about the benefits of trees cut and harvested close to home.

“It’s all about the locally-grown movement,” she said.

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