Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Sustainable, Chemical-Free Christmas Trees?

Rural landowners face a big dilemma when deciding to earn money from the land. First, there is scale: one must have enough land in production to earn one more than a pittance. I hope, with some pasture nearby, to eventually raise Christmas trees without any herbicides or pesticides. My plan would be to employ Integrated Pest Management (IPM) practices, as we do in our garden, mow for weeds, and hand shear trees each year properly until we harvest them.

As I read up on these concepts, and talk to a few local vendors who might buy my trees in a decade, I look no further than our farm garden for some advice on how to manage some of this.

We loaned much of our garden this summer out for an ongoing experiment by a tenant gardener, Dominic, who runs delli Carpini Farm. Other than feeding bugs to our chickens and applying diatomaceous earth to some plants, Dom has not been invasive in his practices. He uses organic fertilizers for top dressing, hand weeds, works the soil with manure, limestone, and fireplace ash, and hand digs most of his beds. Only one bed, never broken before, got the plow and harrow treatment by me. We both dislike that, but my own belief is "plow or till once" to get the weeds gone, then work small plots by hand after. In our sauna of a climate, it is tough to do otherwise.

Right now, the experiment has also showed him and me that being sensitive to the market and finding a niche crop helps.  For next year, if the weather holds, he is thinking of more cantaloupes and fewer tomatoes. After all, in Central VA, everyone grows tomatoes. Local melons, while not exactly rare, are harder to find and his first sales showed that these easily sell out. I will add hot peppers to the mix. Very few growers here have certain varieties I know will sell out at the farmer's markets.

I am considering something similar for trees, but I will have to identify varieties popular around here and that grow well in our climate. I love Scot's Pine but Jean English's article from Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners shows how relentlessly the market determines things. Scots Pines, also a favorite of the author, did not sell because the needles are too prickly for most consumers. Then the question becomes, what trees thrive here and will survive enough shaping to give the iconic (and artificial) conical shape that modern consumers expect?

Our great-grandparents were happy with a "natural" tree, open branches and all. Perhaps in the future, in a new era of energy scarcity, we will be again. Yet I cannot grow that tree for a profit. So the research begins as I talk to local merchants and read more from those in the business.

Because if we have to spray poisons, the deal is just off.