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Drought may impact future Christmas tree crop

BY BRENT GRIFFITHS | SEPTEMBER 12, 2012 6:30 AM

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In the midst of a drought, most people think about the staple crops of Iowa: corn and soybeans. But forgotten is the timeless holiday symbol, the Christmas tree, which can illuminate a living room or become the center of a city. During a drought, even this symbol of the season fights for survival.

Barbara Kistler, who runs Kistler Tree Farm near Fairfield, Iowa, with her husband, said the drought killed all the 1,800 plugs she planted. Plugs are growing trees transplanted to allow for easier growing.

“It was so hot and dry that there were cracks in the yard and trees, and we watched [the plugs] dry up and crinkle right before our eyes like cornflakes,” Kistler said.

She’s not the only one who sees the impact of the drought.

Margaret Handley, a co-owner of Handley’s Christmas tree farm, believes she has “adequate” supply of Christmas trees for this year, but she believes the effect of the drought will be felt eight to 10 years down the road, because the farm lost close to 75 percent of the 2,000 seedlings planted.

“Were surprised that some of the larger trees came through and fared very well,” said Handley, whose tree farm — one of two in Johnson County — began selling trees in 1976.  “This is the worst year we’ve ever had, and we first planted in 1967. I feel like it is going to affect the industry seven to 10 years down the road.”

Kistler, who took over the farm’s operation from her aging father-in-law, believes the drought has compounded the problems her farm faced over the past three years while dealing with a “needle-blight” fungus. Kistler stated the fungus forced her to cut and burn 50 trees and another 65 trees this year  — a huge loss — on average, she sells 50 trees a year.

“These last three years have been horrendous, ” Kistler said. “We could have watered every single day. We could have watered in the morning, and the trees would be dead by night.”

While the effect of the drought will not be immediately felt in Iowa, Rick Dungey of the National Christmas Tree Association believes predicting any economic effect is impossible, and drought is something growers across North America are faced with every year.

“I’ve been doing this for 15 years now," Dungey said. "This [drought] is not an uncommon thing. Any number of things — deer, bugs, and pathogens in the trees  — can kill trees. Tree mortality happens all over North America every single year.”

Across Iowa, State Forester Paul Tauke believes the possible shortage in trees could have “big effect,” but growers may employ a variety of solutions to lessen that, including planting twice as many seedlings this spring, holding back some trees, or possibly switching to more drought-resistant trees such as Scotch or white pine.

Immediate effects are being felt by smaller-scale growers such as Kistler, who said the combination of the drought and fungus has forced her to cut advertising for a second-straight year.

“I just don’t hold my breath at all,” she said. “This year we’re not guaranteeing any trees will be out there. You’re welcome to come, and if you find one, you’re welcome to cut it down and have a merry Christmas.”


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