Oh Christmas Tree: Land Use, Environment, & the Oregon Economy
Every year the environmentally conscience amongst us debate the “greenness” of buying a Christmas tree from a farm or perhaps breaking from tradition and buying a reusable plastic tree from a store—the real vs. fake tree debate involves plenty of pros and cons.
Plastic trees contain polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which is a source of carcinogens and requires fossil fuels, and most (85%) of fake trees are produced outside the US. In a place like Corvallis, where consumers need not travel far to buy a real tree, the upside for a real tree is high. Over the average lifespan of a plastic tree—about six years—the carbon emissions from using a real tree every year is about a third of a fake tree.
But Christmas tree farming often uses harsh pesticides and herbicides, along with chemical fertilizers, to grow trees as quickly as possible. On conventional farms, each tree receives an estimated one ounce of pesticides over its lifetime. In 2010, Oregon sold close to 6.4 million Christmas trees. If these trees take 7-10 years to mature, and assuming re-planting at a similar rate as sales, that’s about 400,000 pounds of pesticide application every decade in Oregon alone.
Happily, some Oregon tree farms are moving in a greener direction. Midway Farms in Albany is a “biodiverse” farm that uses organic practices and offers healthy, live native-species trees to be planted after the holidays. With proper care, these trees will survive several years in their pots, so use them for the next few Christmases! When you’re ready to plant, bring them back to the farm and Midway will give your tree a place to grow for the rests of its days.
Other local farms also follow organic practices, and are worth checking out. Fresh to You Produce and Garden Center in Stayton sells organically-grown trees, and trees from Deninger Farms in Oregon City cost only $20. NJ Christmas Tree Farms in Damascus grows organically for $30 per tree, regardless of size, and Toad Hall Farm and Nursery in Tualatin offers a huge variety of tree species. Visit www.pickyourownchristmastree.org to find sustainably-grown trees near you.
Yet another issue to consider is, could Christmas tree land be used to grow something more sustainable? Oregon accounts for 31% of all Christmas tree sales in the U.S. and the Willamette Valley is the nation’s capital for both Christmas trees and grass seed. In fact, these trees are Oregon’s 5th largest cash crop. But neither of these crops provides any particular benefit to humans outside of superfluous needs like athletic fields or a place to put presents on December 25th.
According to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, in 2010, 925 million people throughout the world suffered from hunger. In the same year, Oregon produced nearly $100 million in Christmas trees—more than 85% of which were sold outside the state—utilizing well over 60,000 acres. 60,000 acres could produce over 11 million bushels of corn, 70,000 tons of hazelnuts, 2.5 million tons of potatoes, or about 4.5 million bushels of barley. It goes without saying, the above alternatives could potentially provide quite a few calories to those that suffer from hunger—the average potato has about 160 calories.
Christmas trees, in various stages of growth, reside on farms throughout the Willamette Valley, and create a major conundrum. While these trees are an important source of funding for many Oregon residents, and are part of a long-standing Christmas tradition, they will also never provide any source of sustenance for the 925 million people suffering from hunger across the globe. While it’s not necessary to deny your kids the joy of decorating a Christmas tree, this year consider buying a live tree to re-plant after the holidays.
By Brendan O’Callaghan
The Environmental Cost of Artificial Trees
In what is quickly becoming an age-old debate, the real versus artificial Christmas tree battle is one that perhaps nobody will win. With the current concentration on the immediate and negative environmental impact of growing and harvesting real trees, the perhaps much more terrible long-term impact of faux trees is sometimes left by the wayside.
Typically manufactured in China out of PVC (a common petroleum-based plastic) and other less-than-stellar materials, these trees are far from biodegradable. Once discarded, they will likely hang out and play penuckle in a landfill until your distant descendants have successfully evolved gills. Add that to the fact that nearly 17.5 million of these were sold in the U.S. in 2007 and the problem becomes painfully apparent.
My solution? I grew my own. It may collapse under the weight of a single ornament, but at least I can sleep at night.