Heat zaps Christmas tree seedlings


Christmases future will be another of the victims of the extreme heat and dryness of summer 2010.  Some Christmas tree growers across Virginia and the Mid-Atlantic are reporting the loss of this year’s seedlings, primarily due to the dry soil conditions.
The long growth period between planting and harvesting trees will make the effects of this summer reach far into the future of Christmas celebrations.
Growers in Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina are all reporting problems in parts of their state.
Sue Bostic, operator of Joe’s Trees in Craig County, Va., said in July that she had lost all of her seedlings.
Asked if she had noticed a trend in recent years in the percentage of loss she replied, “2009 was a great year with the rain. 2010 was another of 99 per cent loss due to drought.”
Comparing these figures to past years, Bostic said she has always had better than 80 percent survival of her seedlings.
“Rain is much needed the first year a seedling or transplant is planted,” Bostic stated.  “After the tree is established it can pretty much handle a year of drought.”
David Huffman in neighboring Giles County said he, too, had lost seedlings.
Wilma Muir, president of the Maryland Christmas Tree Association, reported a 25 percent loss on the 5-acre Christmas tree she and her husband operate.  She said this is a significant loss for them.
She had talked with other growers at the Maryland State Fair on Saturday, Aug. 21, and heard reports of others having lost seedlings during this hot, dry year.  The National Weather Service is reporting that it is the hottest on record.  
Muir said Maryland’s Washington County has been even drier than Harford County where their farm is located. She said it is even drier in Garrett County.
“It’s terrible there,” she declared. “Those growers have probably lost a larger percentage.  It’s been extremely hot.”  
Muir and her husband said they lost all their seedlings to drought in 1991.  She said it has not been that bad this year.
In Virginia’s far southwest, Charlie Conner, a retired Smyth County, Va., Extension agent and Christmas tree grower there, reported losses in his area.
He said some seedlings have been lost on White Top due to the dry weather. White Top is Virginia’s second highest mountain at 5,520 feet.  Neighboring Mount Rogers, which has its own Christmas tree growers association, towers at 5,729 feet.  They are home to many of the state’s Fraser firs. Conner noted it is usually cooler at the higher elevations but said there have been days when the temperature reached 90 even there.
Even though he is retired, Conner travels with an Extension agent’s eye, always looking at what farmers of all kinds are doing.  He said he had noticed some people hauling water and watering their seedlings.
“It has been a year when that made a difference,” Conner stated.
He said most of the seedling loss has been due to drought stress.  In the past, in that region of Virginia, seedling loss has sometimes been caused by late freezes rather than extreme heat and drought.
Conner, who works with both the Mount Rogers Christmas Tree Association which draws members from both Virginia and North Carolina and the North Carolina Christmas Tree Growers Association, said he knew of some seedling loss due to the hot, dry conditions in North Carolina as well as Virginia.
Jerry Moody, an Extension agent and Christmas tree grower in Avery County, N.C., said in his area he has not heard of any seedling losses.  He reported that his county has not suffered from drought and was wet during the planting season.  
Augusta County’s Bill Francisco is another Christmas tree grower reporting loss of seedlings.  He said the last two years have been hard on seedlings.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Francisco predicted.
He sees it as a growing global warming problem. He bases his belief on his experiences in 30 years of growing Christmas trees on his Francisco Farms near Staunton.  Back then he usually had 90 percent of his seedlings survive each year.  That has been dropping over the years to a 50 or 60 percent survival rate, he reported.