When I was a kid, we were lucky enough to harvest our Christmas trees locally. I remember pulling on boots, trudging through crusty snow and finding one right next door where our neighbors offered "pick-your-own" trees for a while. Guided by crude signs stapled to telephone poles, city folks came, too.
Our neighbor's trees weren't perfect. Left to grow naturally until harvest, they weren't uniformly bushy. Some called for a little doctoring with a drill and an extra branch, to fill in an empty spot. Some trees had two leaders (crowns). But there were gems, too. Perhaps more importantly, customers enjoyed the search. The hillside looked beautiful. Toasty in our snowsuits, we had great fun dragging sleds around and eating snow.
I don't know how many people casually grew Christmas trees for extra cash back then, but one thing is sure: Today, most Christmas trees are raised far more methodically. Farmers think of them as crops, and treat them accordingly, applying a wide variety of pesticides and herbicides at various points in the growing season. These agrichemicals are legal, but their safety is controversial enough that anyone considering a Christmas tree should take a closer look.
Growers typically apply a host of pesticides like Di-Syston 15G, Dimethoate and Asana, and herbicides like Round-Up, Simazine and Goal, as shown in surveys published by the Cooperative Extension in North Carolina, where many of the United States' Christmas trees are grown. Christmas trees are also commonly fed synthetic fertilizers and transported to places as far away as Japan, utilizing valuable fossil fuels.
Whether these agrichemicals are safe is a matter of fierce debate. Some experts feel the Environmental Protection Agency watches out well enough for our safety. "There are some pesticides used [in Christmas tree production] but they are all strictly regulated,"
says Henry Gerhold, professor of forest genetics in the School of Forest Resources at Penn State University. "The ones that are used do not pose a serious threat to the environment," he says.
In contrast, however, other scientists and consumer health advocates point to evidence that suggests we should exercise more caution than we do. To cite one example, "Di-Syston 15G (disulfoton), used to control the balsam twig aphid and spruce spider mite (on Christmas trees) in the spring, is highly toxic to stream fauna," according to a paper by Dr. Jill R. Sidebottom, Area Extension specialist at North Carolina State University. Pesticides used in Christmas tree production may harm wildlife, too. "If exposure is great enough, the animal will die," notes another fact sheet prepared by scientists at the North Carolina Cooperative Extension.
Human health is also at stake. Simazine, Atrazine and Lindane have been found in well water around Christmas tree farms, says the Cooperative Extension. These chemicals, as well as Dimethoate and Goal, have been associated with cancer risks, it says, noting those most at risk are people applying them. While Lindane has now been phased out for use on Christmas trees and most other agricultural purposes in the U.S., Atrazine and Simazine are still in use. Atrazine's manufacturer, Syngenta, emphasizes that research shows its product is safe. However, other scientific research shows that Atrazine exposure can cause gonadal abnormalities and feminization in frogs. Atrazine is also associated with decreased sperm counts in men.
The use of such chemicals drove Christmas tree farmer Curtis Buchanan to grow organic Christmas trees. "I wasn't too thrilled about being around Di-Syston, because it's so powerful," the 52-year-old Buchanan told me. Run-off from his chemical fertilizers also caused "huge problems," he adds. So, in 1995, he started an organic test plot.
This Christmas, Buchanan will be harvesting his USDA certified-organic trees for the third consecutive year at Glen Ayre Tree Farm in Mitchell Co., N.C. Buchanan says the switch was "daunting, because nobody had ever done it." A 30-year veteran of the business, Buchanan says he wants "to influence conventional growers to change some practices, simply diminishing the types and amounts of chemicals they're using."
He's eager to share his results. "I see myself as a research farm," he says.
Amid the confusing debate over pesticides, one way we can be sure to protect the earth, growers, farm workers and our children is by erring on the side of caution. Why not look for the most environmentally friendly tree around? The best way to find one is by asking questions and comparing answers. What kind of pesticides and herbicides does the farmer use, and when? Has the tree been sprayed with green color or a substance to keep needles on?
If you miss your childhood experiences in the woods as much as I do, driving to a grower to cut your own tree can become a fun ritual. If you can't locate or afford an organic tree, try to find a local farmer who uses Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques, which aim to minimize pesticide use. If you can't go to the farm, seek out a market advertising organic or sustainably grown trees.
Whatever you do, don't fall back on an artificial tree. Experts agree real Christmas trees are more environmentally friendly than artificial ones. Sidebottom points out that most artificial trees are made in China, where environmental laws are lax.
Christmas tree crops help lower levels of carbon dioxide in the air, Gerhold adds. "People fear that cutting trees may be harming the environment, when really the opposite is true," he says. Young trees growing vigorously remove large quantities of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, he explains. Additionally, real Christmas trees are a renewable resource and easily recyclable. Up to three seedlings are planted to replace harvested trees, according to the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA).
In the true spirit of the season, be forgiving of your tree. Never were there more beautiful trees than the irregular ones of my childhood. A tree needn't be dense or symmetrical to be "perfect." The ritual of spending time with loved ones to find and decorate a Christmas tree that's been grown without damaging the earth will make it so.
On Christmas trees
To find a local farmer, check out <http://www.localharvest.org>. If you're having trouble finding Christmas tree listings in your area, try asking at local health food stores and farmers' markets. Local sellers and growers tend to know each other.
For tips on living "balled and burlapped" or potted trees, see <http://www.realchristmastrees.org/livecare.html>.
To recycle a Christmas tree, see <http://www.realchristmastree.org> and enter your zip code into the "Find Tree Recycler" box.
For general information about Christmas tree production, see
On pesticides and Christmas trees
For a great overview and specific details about Christmas tree production, particularly in North Carolina, one of the country's leading Christmas tree-producing states, see
For a brochure on Christmas tree pesticides and human health, designed for ag workers, see <http://www.cals.ncsu.edu/toxicology/Extension_Pgm/pdfs/XMAS_ENG.PDF>.
For information on Christmas trees in North Carolina (from North Carolina State University), see <http://pestdata.ncsu.edu/cropprofiles/docs/NCchristmastrees.html>.
For details on pesticides