CORBETT, Ore. (KOIN) — On a rainy October morning, Tom Norby was winding his way through rows and rows of Christmas trees, tying different colored flagging to the tops to indicate tree species and quality.
The damp weather was a welcome change from the extraordinary heat that scorched Norby’s Trout Creek Tree Farm in the summer.
“Pretty much everybody had some level of damage, some severely, some not so much, like myself, but everybody experienced some level of damage,” Norby said.
In late June, temperatures in the Portland metro area and the Willamette Valley soared to record-shattering high numbers for three consecutive days.
The timing couldn’t have been worse for Christmas tree growers.
Trees such as noble fir and Nordmann and Turkish Fir had just sprouted their new growth. These newly-budded needles were extremely vulnerable to the heat.
“They were wilted, actually cooked right on there, and sunburned. They were brown and dead, and leaders were tipped over,” described Judy Kowalski, a bio science technician who studies Christmas trees at Oregon State University.
Kowalski said the damage varied widely throughout the region, depending on where farms were located. Farms like Norby’s, which is located at a higher elevation in Corbett, didn’t see extreme damage. But farms at lower elevations and trees growing on south-facing slopes really took the heat.
OSU researchers estimate about a 70% mortality rate among noble fir seedlings.
That’s where Norby saw the greatest impact. He thinks 40 to 50% of his seedlings died.
In the plots of land where he planted them, some seedlings are persisting and pushing out new, green shoots. Norby feels optimistic these seedlings will survive as long as there’s not another heat wave in 2022.
As for the rest of the seedlings, they’re brown and shriveled-up. Norby said he planted 10,000 seedlings in April and invested about $1.50 in each, meaning the heatwave cost him thousands of dollars.
Norby is the president of the Oregon Christmas Tree Growers Association. He’s heard from several other farmers, like himself, whose crops were damaged in the summer heat. He expects yields will be down about 5 to 10% for the 2021 holiday season.
Justin Timm from Frog Pond Farms told KOIN 6 News he also expects that much of a decrease in his yield. Lee Farms in Tualatin said they will have “somewhat of a shortage” this year.
Meanwhile, researchers at OSU have ranked Christmas tree species by the most damage, with Fraser firs showing the most damage. Grand firs have a range of damage to their leaders and needles, as do noble firs, which saw damage to the current year and last year’s growth. Nordmann and Turkish firs saw damage to their upper whorls and leaders, and Douglas firs showed little to no damage.
Norby said people shopping for Christmas trees in the coming months should prepare to see a bit more brown than they’re used to seeing on evergreens. He said if climate change continues, that could become normal.
He’s still hoping the singed needles won’t discourage people from purchasing trees from farms.
“As growers we’re trying to put out our best product. We’re trying to give you the best high-quality product you can get at the market. Unfortunately, nature dealt us kind of a crummy hand this year,” he said.
Kowalski and Norby said with so many seedlings damaged in 2021, there could also be a supply issue in about eight years when those seedlings would have been harvested. Norby said it will depend on how many trees farmers plant in 2022 and if there are any more extreme heat events in the next several years.
Oregon produces the most Christmas trees in the U.S., according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture. But if temperatures continue to rise, Norby predicts more farmers might move north to Washington, hoping for a more favorable climate.
Norby said planting cover crops between trees could be another way to protect them from heat. He’s currently growing grass between his rows of trees and says the grass helps hold moisture in the ground, which will give his trees a better chance of surviving another heat wave.
Kowalski said farmers might also start changing the variety of trees they grow. They might phase out their noble firs and grow more Nordmann and Turkish firs, which withstand the heat better.
“As an industry, we will change and adapt and we’ll come up with new ways in order to get trees to survive and be healthier going forward,” Norby said. “But I think this will make us rethink what we’re doing.”