Going Green

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Christmas Trees for the Panhandle

I’ve always been fascinated with Christmas trees. I prefer a fresh cut tree rather than an artificial one, but because of allergies, it is artificial at our house. To be able to go out and cut a tree in the woods and bring it home for Christmas is something that would be a wonderful family outing. In the plains of West Texas it is something that is highly unlikely.

My fascination with Christmas trees has led to an interest in Christmas tree farming. It is not something that you typically see in the Texas Panhandle, but there are tree farms even in this part of the world. Large-scale farms in our area are unlikely because of the necessary expense of irrigating the trees and the low-density population base within a short distance. The trees would need to be transported to large population centers for sale. We have a decided economic disadvantage to areas of the country with higher levels of precipitation.

I do believe that small-scale tree farms geared to individuals who want the experience of cutting their own tree could be profitable. They would need to be located within a short driving distance of the larger cities in the area. It also would be desirable to enhance the experience by providing hay rides or special events during the tree cutting season prior to Christmas.

Many species of pine that make beautiful Christmas trees grow well in our area. Both Afghan and Austrian pines can be sheared and tipped to provide the classic shape most desired by those who prefer a fresh-cut tree. They do require significant amounts of water in order to grow fairly quickly.

When provided with sufficient water and proper soil nutrients, a 2-year old seedling can reach heights of 5 to 6 feet within a 4 to 5 year period. This means that there would be significant capital investment as well as time and labor before a sellable crop could be available. With careful planning, a portion of the available acreage could be planted each year so that by the end of the third or fourth year, a few trees would be of sufficient size to cut. As trees are harvested, new seedlings could be planted in their place so that a sustainable number of trees eventually would become available each year.

Trees should be planted at a spacing that fits the equipment available for maintaining the farm. It is necessary to keep spaces between trees mowed and also to be able to access the trees for spraying insecticides when necessary. Generally a minimum spacing of 6 foot centers is required if equipment is fairly small. Wider spacing of up to 8 foot may be necessary with larger equipment. With 8 foot centers, approximately 680 trees can be grown per acre of land.

Planting of the trees is typically done by hand on smaller tracts. A mattock or tree planting spade is usually used to plant the seedlings which are about eight to ten inches tall at two years of age. Care must be taken to make certain the roots are placed straight in the ground rather than curved at the bottom of the hole. Good straight roots are necessary to provide stability as the tree grows – especially when faced with windy conditions.

The trees are not labor intensive once they become established, however they do require attention on a daily business throughout the growing season. As the trees grow, it is necessary to monitor them continually for insect infestation and for disease. They also will need to be sheared in July or August and the terminal leader will need to be tipped. The shearing and tipping will cause the trees to branch, which creates thicker foliage. It also helps to create the desired shape. Many growers will cut back up to 1/3 of the annual growth each year.

Although not likely to become a large part of our local agricultural economy, small-scale tree farms could be a good fit to many operations as a way to diversify income. Diverting a few acres to such an enterprise might work well in marginal areas that do not fit with typical cropping or livestock operations.

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