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How might climate change impact N.H.'s Christmas trees?

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Cori Princell for NHPR
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Pickings were slim at Rossview Farm in Concord on December 5, 2021, the day they closed for the season

For some Granite Staters, it’s the season to go out and get a Christmas tree. And farmers are saying families should get out soon, warning of a supply squeeze and possible higher prices. But for some in the industry, there’s another concern: climate change.

Jim Horst, the executive director of the New Hampshire and Vermont Christmas Tree Association, says climate change could have a significant impact on Christmas tree farmers.

“It isn’t just that the average temperature is changing, going up. It’s the extremes within that and the extremes in rainfall,” he said.

Horst’s farm in southern Vermont lost about 30% of the new trees they planted in 2020 due to extreme dryness in May and June. But this year, he’s seeing a lot of rain.

“Almost too much,” he said.

A Christmas tree takes almost a decade to grow up enough to be taken home and decorated. That’s part of why supply is tight this year, Horst says: the trees that are adults right now were planted during a time when prices weren’t favorable, so some people stopped growing.

Horst is careful to say he can’t predict what effect climate change will have.

“If I knew what was going to be happening in 8 or 10 years from now, I’d be a wealthy man,” he said. “I’m not a wealthy man.”

But he says that the loss of around 30% of his plantings in 2020 could mean less trees coming to market in the future.

Rick Zielfelder, the owner of Conroy Tree Farm in Farmington, says variable rainfall has started to have an impact on his trees, too. Last year he started irrigating, an uncommon step for tree farmers in the Northeast.

“I was feeling that it was getting hotter, it was becoming drier. That’s why I put some time into researching how I could irrigate my trees,” Zielfelder said.

It’s hard to say how climate change will impact drought in the Northeast, but scientists know that rainfall is getting more variable. And three of New Hampshire’s most severe multi-year droughts on record happened in the past 20 years.

Like Horst, Zielfelder says he got a lot of rain this year — more than he’s ever seen on his farm. He hasn’t seen big impacts on his trees this year, but he says too much rain can have an impact on Christmas trees, too.

“Certain species don’t like their roots wet. And then there are certain funguses and diseases that actually travel around underground with water,” he said. “There’s always concerns to any of the bookend extremes.”

Nigel Manley is the chair of the New Hampshire Christmas Tree Promotion Board and director of North Country Properties for the Forest Society. One of the properties he manages is The Rocks in Bethlehem, which houses a Christmas tree farm.

Manley says he’s started to plant small trees between bigger trees that are already in the soil, so they have lower soil temperatures and have a bit of shade. That wasn’t in direct response to climate change, but he’s found that it’s working well.

“We actually did it by mistake, to be quite honest,” he said. “We inter-planted like that and found that we got better take that way, and then had the scientific explanation as to why it worked better, so we just continued doing it,” he said.

Manly says Christmas tree farmers in the region have talked together about climate change and some of the solutions they could use on their farms.

“I think by looking at what other farmers are doing and seeing how they’re coping, if they’re having extreme conditions on the farm, helps everybody,” he said.