Young Christmas trees dying of thirst in the Evergreen State

Kari Bray
Associated Press

GRANITE FALLS, WA. (AP) - Early fall might seem early to be thinking about Christmas.

Unless you're a tree farmer, preparing for the busy winter season at the tail end of a record dry summer in western Washington.

Lanai Hemstrom feels the dried out top of a Colorado blue spruce tree at her Hemstrom Valley Tree Farm in Granite Falls.

This winter and spring saw record-breaking rainfall in the region, but the summer countered with record-breaking heat and dryness. Though rains are returning, the Seattle area recently witnessed its longest known stretch without, and temperatures soared during heat waves in July and August.

That takes a toll on Christmas trees, even in The Evergreen State.

The effect varies from farm to farm. Some are holding up just fine, with trees rooted in the area's thicker, wetter soils. Others are struggling as needles fall from heat-stressed trees and seedlings swelter.

Lanai Hemstrom, of Hemstrom Valley Tree Farm in Granite Falls, calls herself a newbie in the world of Christmas tree farming. She planted in 2002 and started selling about seven years ago. Depending on the variety, it takes roughly a decade for seedlings to grow into Christmas trees. There are about 13,000 trees on her property.

This summer has been brutal. She can't trim her trees the way she'd like because they're struggling to stay healthy.

"We're losing just a lot of trees," she said. "I've been getting sprinklers out there all the time. It takes me 12 or 14 days to water all of the trees. I'm on my third or fourth round."

She noticed needles falling from the boughs. The trees seem stressed.

"It got so dry the water was just rolling off of them," she said. "I have to soak the heck out of them."

She's not sure how long she'll be open this winter if the trees continue to struggle.

She hopes people at Christmas tree farms this winter are respectful of the little trees most affected by heat. Families are encouraged to cut mature trees, not small ones meant for a future crop.

William Brown goes by Bill most of the year, except at Christmas time, when he's Farmer Brown, of Farmer Brown's Christmas Tree Farm in Arlington. He's been in business for about 35 years.

The past few summers have been dry, but his trees seem to be doing fine. He credits the soil they grow in.

"We have a heavy clay out here, so the soil holds the moisture really well," he said.

Other tree farms are on sandier soil.

"I imagine that would be pretty bad," Brown said.

He hasn't needed extra water for his trees, but has noticed more local farms watering or irrigating. The biggest change he's seen with the dry spell is fewer weeds. They can't hack the heat as well as sturdy evergreens.

At Lochsloy Acres near Lake Stevens, Sheila McKinnon said the farm has done OK, but did lose some seedlings.

"But nobody's going to notice that for eight years," she said. "Just like two years ago, we lost seedlings, but no one will notice that for years. Then they're going to wonder, 'Where did all the Christmas trees go?' "

John Tillman has more than 40 years of experience working on tree farms, 30 on his own farm. He and wife Carol run Tillman Christmas Trees, with a home base near Elma and several locations in southern Washington. John Tillman just finished a term as vice president for Washington on the board of the Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association. He knows farmers throughout Washington and Oregon.

This has without a doubt been a tough, dry summer, he said. But it's not just this year; the past three have been hard.

Like Brown, Tillman has noticed that how individual farms fare often comes down to soil. Heavier soils soak up moisture during the winter and hold onto it. But a number of farms, or parts of farms, are on sandier, rockier glacial till. Water drains from that type of earth quickly.

Long, dry summers also bring an increased risk of damage from insects that thrive in the heat.

Big trees are mostly OK, Tillman said. Seedlings are hardest hit. For the past couple of years, he's watered young trees. The first time, it struck him as odd.

"I live in Washington, I should not have to water a Christmas tree," he said. "It's like taking snow to Alaska."

Most tree farmers he knows don't have formal watering or irrigation plans, but are starting to brace for potentially more dry summers.

"The harder part this year was that the ground was so wet for so long because we had such a wet spring," he said. "So when it began to dry, we saw more soil cracking and it was more glazed. The change was sudden."

Tillman isn't terribly worried about this year's crop of trees, or even next year's. Those were planted in 2010 or earlier. They grew to be hardy before things dried up.

His fear is that, seven to 10 years from now, there will be a Christmas tree shortage caused by this summer's weather. He knows of farms, mostly in Oregon, where more than half of new seedlings perished.

There are nearly 80 licensed Christmas tree growers in Washington, according to the state Department of Agriculture. That includes nine listed in Snohomish County.