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November 26, 2010

Sustainable Christmas Trees

treeBy Becky Tsang

Bill and Nan Krelle are not your average tree farmers. The husband and wife team run Double K Christmas Tree Farm entirely by themselves, with a little help from their children during the harvest season. They don’t irrigate, fertilize, or use any pesticides on their trees, but they do slowly nurture eight and a half acres of rare Silver Tip Christmas trees on their farm in the Sierra Nevadas, in order to provide a more sustainable option for Christmas tree shoppers.

While the environmental discussion has often focused on plastic vs. real Christmas trees, not all “real” trees are the same. In fact, much like produce, there is a whole range of factors to pay attention to when gauging the sustainability of the choice. The majority of Christmas trees are farmed conventionally — in other words, they are the product of monocropping over vast tracts of land, and they involve fossil fuel-based fertilizers and pesticides, as well as irrigation that causes waste water runoff. A conventional Christmas tree requires around a quarter of an ounce of pesticides to produce; that might not seem like much, but it adds up, and puts Christmas tree farm workers and their families at an elevated risk of pesticide poisoning.

Now that more and more tree lots claim to have sustainable options, what makes the Krelles’ trees special? For one, they’re born out of a love for forestry. Bill spent 30 years at the California Department of Forestry running a reforestation nursery before beginning Double K (for Krelle and Krelle) with his father 20 years ago. It shows in everything from his choice of property (he farms at a higher elevation than most Christmas tree growers) to the variety of tree he’s chosen (Silver Tips take over 10 years to reach the height that Monterey pines, a more common Christmas tree, reach in three to four years).
 
Then there’s the number of trees Bill plants. Whereas most tree growers plant one to three trees for every one they harvest, Bill says, “I always want to plant at least eight, and I shoot for 10 new trees for every one that I harvest.” Last year, for instance, he harvested about 300 trees, and planted 2,700.

Bill also “recycles” the tree. He cuts the tree high enough that there’s a whorl of branches on top, and that keeps the root system alive. All those small branches extend themselves, and the one growing straightest is left to grow into a new Christmas tree, while the others get trimmed off eventually. Keeping the root system alive allows the tree to continue capturing carbon dioxide from the air and creating oxygen as it re-grows. Due to their economic value, recent USDA research has focused on Christmas tree farming as a carbon storing method in agricultural ecosystems. Considering that an acre of six- to seven-foot-tall tall Douglas Fir trees is estimated to sequester 12 tons of carbon, every tree Bill keeps in the ground is worth the extra effort.

Double K trees are not certified organic, but Bill does not apply any pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizer to his trees. He explains, “It’s too cold for a lot of insects and I’m growing a species that’s pretty resistant. Most people down lower grow what they call Monterey pine, and they’re bothered by all different kinds of mites and insects. They usually spray two or three times a year.”

Double K trees are also water-wise. Bill plants his trees amongst a native forest and the only water they receive is rain and winter snowfall, whereas other Christmas tree farms at lower elevations are subjected to warmer temperatures that dry their soil out and require irrigation.

Is there anything Bill doesn’t enjoy about tree farming? Not really. “I think the most difficult thing is that I’m getting older,” he says. “I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to do it, but I love it so much; it’s my favorite place to be.”

Bill’s tips for taking care of your cut Christmas tree are simple: keep it in water and away from heat. 

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