In early December in Portland I saw my first live Christmas tree of the season strapped to the top of a car. I was saddened. Not because I don’t celebrate Christmas (even though I don’t) but because the Christmas tree industry is so harmful.
In the days that followed, I saw tree lots springing up all around town. Many had signs reading, “Local,” which I thought was pretty funny because what else would they be? Oregon is the biggest grower of Christmas trees in the US, with 42,000 acres producing five to seven million trees per year. Clackamas county, which grows the most in the state, is right next to Portland. So, local? Yeah. But, sustainable? Nope.
I first became aware of the toxic nature of Christmas tree farming in 2011 when my friend Clara and I were farming in Polk County, in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Though not as prevalent as grass seed farms (which take up fully half of the farmland in the valley) Christmas tree plantations were a common sight, often on slopes that are less suitable for other crops. Our concern, since we were organic growers coming into this zone of conventional agriculture, was what chemicals were being used nearby and in our watershed that might taint our own crops. We didn’t like what we found and only planted there one season.
Chemically speaking, conventional farming is a dirty business, and when the crop isn’t food, it’s often worse. With Christmas tree farming, synthetic chemical use is virtually ubiquitous, with organic trees making up just 1% of the market. Aesthetics are obviously of paramount importance with this product, and a sleigh-load of toxic substances are used to kill pests, strike down diseases and accentuate their color. Six to ten years of this damaging activity goes into making a decoration that is displayed for a few weeks and then usually sent to the landfill.