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Christmas Tree Growers Feel Drought Impact in Wisconsin

December 10, 2012

By Meg Jones, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Dec. 10--PEWAUKEE -- Inhaling the heady aroma of fresh-cut evergreens, Ken Ottman walked through his crop of firs, pines and balsams on his busy Christmas tree lot and admired the survivors.

Every single seedling he planted this year -- 5,000 trees -- and a third of all the trees he planted last year and the year before died, victims of this past summer's drought.

His adult trees shed more needles than usual, and when it came time to harvest evergreens destined for living rooms in southeastern Wisconsin, he felled fewer trees and left behind some that normally would have been cut down this year but looked too sparse. He also bought trees from northern Wisconsin wholesalers to sell at his lot.

Tens of thousands of Christmas trees on farms throughout the state were killed by the drought, with growers in southern Wisconsin hit especially hard.

"We got hot and dry weather just at the wrong time. The new growth was soft, the trees were elongating (their branches), the soil was hot and they didn't get water. They just went pfft," said Ottman, owner of Ottman Family Christmas Tree Farm, who has operated a tree lot at the intersection of Pewaukee Road and Capitol Drive in Pewaukee for 18 years.

More than 1 in 5 Wisconsin Christmas tree farms suffered drought damage, according to state figures released Thursday. State Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection inspectors checked 446 Christmas tree fields owned by 212 growers this fall. Statewide, 97 of those fields were affected by the drought.

But tree farms in the central sands region including Waushara, Marquette, Adams and Waupaca counties were devastated, said Christopher Deegan, chief of the agriculture department's plant protection section. In those counties half to three-quarters of the fields had high or severe drought damage, meaning 40% or more trees died.

John Riehle, whose Riehle's Tree Farm is a choose-and-cut business in Dousman, lost a quarter of his trees including 90% of the last three years' plantings, about 15,000 trees. He plans to replant many of the young seedlings, but trees 4 feet and taller that didn't make it will be cut down and burned.

He's not sure if his crop will bounce back next year.

"If we get plenty of rain they will," Riehle said. "If we don't get good rains, they're already stressed now, they won't make it next year if we have another dry spell."

Home to more than 1,100 Christmas tree farms, Wisconsin ranks fifth in the nation in the number of trees harvested -- nearly one million each year.

Ottman, who farms about 70 acres of Christmas trees in Door County, Almond and Wild Rose, isn't sure what he'll do next year. The seedlings he plants are 2 to 3 years old and grown in greenhouses and seed beds so the crop of young trees due to go into the ground next season are already growing. That means there are only so many Christmas tree seedlings in the pipeline.

Thirsty tannenbaums slurped water as soon as growers irrigated last summer, but many Wisconsin Christmas tree farmers do not have irrigation equipment. Plus triple-digit temperatures warmed the soil and spruces and firs, for the most part, don't appreciate the heat. Unlike mature trees, young seedlings hadn't set their roots, and that made it more difficult to get enough moisture.

Tree growers are anxiously watching to see what kind of winter Wisconsin will get. Conifers lose moisture all winter long because the ground is frozen and they're not sucking up water. Trees already stressed by drought might not be hearty enough to withstand a harsh winter.

"Depending on how this winter goes we could see a significant dieback in trees," said John DuPlissis, a University of Wisconsin Extension forestry specialist based in Stevens Point. "Winter damage is more dependent on what kind of condition the trees are in when they go into dormancy."

But many trees now gracing Christmas tree lots awaiting lights and tinsel weathered the drought. The adage that trees are the best economists in the world, meaning they don't invest where they won't get a return, held true in Wisconsin this year. There are plenty of plump, verdant evergreens at tree lots throughout the state ready for hoisting onto car roofs.

So while this year's drought hit some Christmas tree farmers hard, the impact might not be seen, if at all, for many years. Christmas trees are harvested after eight to 10 years in the ground, depending on the size.

"Some of the growers said the trees planted this year died, but next year they might plant larger seedlings to compensate," said Cheryl Nicholson, executive secretary of the Wisconsin Christmas Tree Growers Association. "So eight to 10 years down the road they'll have a tree the size they want."


(c)2012 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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