Hallie: Hello and welcome to One to Grow On. A show where we dig into questions about agriculture and try to understand how food production impacts us and our world. My name is Hallie Casey and I studied and currently work in agriculture.
Chris: I’m Chris Casey, Hallie’s dad. Each episode we pick an area of agriculture or food production to discuss and this week we’re focusing on Christmas trees.
Hallie: Today we’re going to talk about the agronomic information around Christmas trees, a little bit about the history. This is an episode for all people of all faiths, even if you do not celebrate Christmas. Welcome to the Christmas tree episode, everyone.
Chris: Welcome. It’s more about trees than about Christmas, right?
Hallie: Yes, absolutely. Except for, I hope you are wearing warm, cozy socks, wherever you are.
Chris: I am wearing no socks, but I am wearing my Baby Yoda PJ pants.
Hallie: Totally counts. Dad, what do you know about Christmas trees?
Chris: I know they’re trees.
Hallie: Yeah, great.
Chris: I know they’re often made of fir.
Hallie: Made of fir. What do you mean made of fir?
Chris: There’s Douglas fir and noble fir and what other kind of fir treating.
Hallie: Right. Not like cat fur.
Chris: I mean, I just assumed it’s all the same fir, right?
Hallie: It is not the same fir. [Laughs].
Chris: Definitely not. Okay. I mean, and they are trees.
Hallie: Yeah, you said that.
Chris: I guess that’s all I really know. Usually, I guess we have some sort of pine tree as our Christmas tree when we’ve had Christmas trees. I feel like my grandparents once went out into the field and cut down some sort of Christmasy shaped Cedar tree.
Hallie: Oh, that’s so cool.
Chris: Or what we call Cedar trees here in Central Texas, which are actually what Ashe juniper or whatever.
Hallie: Correct. Great work.
Chris: Go me and they usually have lovely decorations and some sort of ridiculous, massive thing on top.
Hallie: Yeah, botanically speaking, Christmas trees are not very specific. They’re kind of just generally a conifer. A conifer could be like you mentioned fir trees, it could also be pines, spruces, et cetera. What the term conifer means is it’s within this category of seed plants so that is all plants that make seeds. We have within seed plants, angiosperms that’s plants that flower like an apple tree or a sunflower, anything with a flower on it is an angiosperm and then you have gymnosperms and gymno.
Chris: Means they’re doing gymnastics.
Hallie: It does not mean they’re doing gymnastics. Gymnosperm means naked seed. So sperm meaning seed and gymno meaning naked.
Hallie: Within gymnosperms, you have a couple of different categories, ginkgo trees, which we’ve talked about before are gymnosperm, cycads are gymnosperm, which are like a kind of palm and then conifers are also a type of gymnosperms. That’s what conifer means. It is a cone bearing plant. It does not have flowers and it makes cones.
Chris: I think cone bearing was the thing that I had learned in I don’t know elementary or high school or somewhere along the way, but there’s a little more to it than that and they bear these lovely cones and the cones are what contain the seeds.
Hallie: Exactly. Yes, these trees that we use as Christmas trees don’t make flowers. They make instead cones with seeds in them. If you’ve ever seen like there’s really cool videos on YouTube with a pine cone exploding outwards.
Hallie: Which is when a pine cone gets ripe when it’s not ripe, when it’s ready. Then when it’s not ready, all of those little edge guys are like uptight so it kind of looks just like an egg. Then when it’s ready, it kind of just like pops open and all of the seeds kind of shoot-out, which is a great seed dispersal method and then that’s when you get kind of that classic pine cone shape because it kind of just hoots open.
Chris: Okay. We’re putting the link to one of those videos in the show notes because I got to see this.
Hallie: Let’s talk about the history of Christmas trees. There is a very long tradition of people putting green things in their houses. The Egyptians did it, the Romans did it, the pagans did it. When it’s winter time, it’s dark and gross and there’s some green stuff outside. Let’s bring it inside and make it nicer inside. We’ve been doing that for a long time, but the practice of bringing a whole entire tree into your house started in Germany. The church was putting on plays to educate people about the Bible because people couldn’t read very well. So they would put on place showing stories from the Bible and the 24th of December was celebrated as like the feast day for Adam and Eve. Not really sure what that means, but they would put on an Adam and Eve play. Within the story of Adam and Eve, there is a tree famously and so they would bring a tree and from outside as kind of a prop in a play and they would put like red balls on it if they couldn’t source any apples.
Hallie: Yeah, so that was like the first time we started putting trees inside of our houses around Christmas time. Eventually, they started adding candles to these trees and other things and it started looking lovely and people started thinking, hey, that’s nice. I’ll just put that in my house so eventually, it became a German tradition to actually have a tree around the 25th of December. That was around like the 1500, 1600. Eventually, people started immigrating from Germany over West to the Americas and they kind of took that tradition with them, but it didn’t really take off until Queen Victoria in 1848. There was an engraving made of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who is German. What?
Chris: He’s the guy in the can.
Hallie: What can?
Chris: Prince Albert in a can.
Hallie: I don’t know what you’re talking about, dad.
Chris: You’ve never heard of Prince Albert in a can?
Hallie: Prince Albert in a can? What?
Chris: It’s a joke. You call up a grocery store. You say, do you have Prince Albert in a can? They say yes and you say, you better let him out.
Hallie: Why would they say yes though? I don’t understand.
Chris: That’s a great question. Oh, it’s tobacco.
Hallie: Okay. Well, probably makes sense as to why I’ve never heard this weird joke because nobody chews tobacco anymore.
Chris: It’s true. I mean, I’m sure some people do, but yeah.
Hallie: I will say I went to school for agriculture and we did have signs around the school saying this is a tobacco free campus so you can’t chew your tobacco or smoke it because that’s what I went to school with.
Chris: Good for them.
Hallie: Farm folks and that is not uncommon for some people in some areas of the country, but anyways. Great, weird old joke, dad.
Chris: Thank you.
Hallie: So in 1848, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and their kids, there was an engraving made. It got put in a couple of magazines and everyone was like, oh my God, how cool and fashionable a tree inside the house with candles on it and stuff so it became kind of a thing and then in the 19th century, the electric lobby here in the US pushed for an electrically lit tree in the white house, which kind of brought the tradition here to the US.
Hallie: Eventually in the late fifties and early sixties, plastic trees and otherwise non-natural trees came into fashion, which we will talk about later, but that’s kind of the brief history of the Christmas tree.
Chris: Okay. Super brief.
Hallie: Really quickly before we went into the mid-role, I wanted to kind of talk to you about your favorite part of a Christmas tree.
Chris: Oh, wow. I used to help my mom decorate the Christmas tree and it was a lot of fun and for some reason, there were these two little wooden pan hand painted bird ornaments that I always put on the Christmas tree and I’d always sort of dig through the ornament box and look for those specific ornaments so I could put them on the tree. I’d try to give find little places where they could have nest in the branches.
Hallie: Oh, well. That’s so cool.
Chris: Yeah, and then I really pushed hard for blinking Christmas lights.
Hallie: Oh yes.
Chris: Because I thought blinking Christmas lights were the coolest. My mom of course wanted static white lights. The blinking drove her nuts but I just for some reason really loved blinking Christmas lights and then at some point, we had this giant star on the top of the tree that was basically one big series of concentric circles of blinking lights and I loved it.
Hallie: I love that. That’s awesome. I don’t know when you got this, but had like a little X wing that plugged into a Christmas light and so it would like light up different colors if I remember correctly.
Chris: That’s true. The engines would light up.
Hallie: Very cool.
Chris: Yeah, I still got that [inaudible].
Hallie: I also used to decorate the Christmas trees with your mom and my sister and I think my favorite part was always at the very end. Our Christmas trees over the years got more and more elaborate. At one point, we were buying like 18 foot Christmas trees and doing the entire tree and it was like really intense, but my favorite part was always at the very end we would do tinsel and I know it’s not very environmentally sound to be putting strings of plastic on to your Christmas tree, but we would save it from year to year. We would like pull it out of this baggie and it would like always have little pine needles from last year in there and we would like sprinkle the tinsel on and it would just look so incredible this giant monstrous tree that was just covered in a bunch of handmade ornaments and lights and shiny, shiny tinsel. It was my favorite.
Chris: Okay. I want to make sure the listener understands here because my first memory of tinsel was this sort of shiny plastic stuff that was fixed to a string and then you’d sort of draped the string around the tree and there’d be the shiny plastic stuff attached to the string and so you’d have tinsel all around the tree. Now, this tinsel to which Hallie is referring was just the shiny plastic stuff. It was just a bunch of loose tinsel in the bag that they would get up and they would sort of drape all over the tree and then to clean it up, we’d have to pick up the individual pieces and I’m sure we would lose a little bit each year to sweeping or vacuuming or whatever and then stuff it back in the bag. Yeah, it was a mess, but it did look pretty cool.
Hallie: To be fair, we also had this string kind of tinsel. We really went for a maximalist look with our Christmas trees.
Chris: That was like, I think we hit peak tinsel in one year. I don’t know.
Hallie: You know what people wear every day?
Chris: What do people wear every day?
Chris: I mean, we’ll say most people. I don’t want to speak for everyone.
Hallie: That’s fair. Most people, most days. We are in Zoom life so live your bliss. There are very few societal norms that we all have to follow anymore.
Chris: It’s true. If you like go commando, but if you don’t.
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Hallie: Who’s that?
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Hallie: We are so grateful for you guys. You do the mostess, the absolute mostess and we are so, so grateful and we hope that you guys are having a wonderful day wherever you are.
Chris: Thank you to each and every one of you.
Hallie: Shall we get back to the episode?
Chris: Back to the episode.
Hallie: So dad, do you have a nature fact for us?
Chris: A figure very often associated with Christmas is of course, Santa Claus.
Chris: But did you know that in the Marvel Universe, Santa Claus is the most powerful mutant according to Cerebro.
Chris: Yeah, in 1991, they declared that he was an Omega level mutant with abilities that included immortality, weather manipulation, molecular manipulation, immunity to cold and heat and gravity manipulation, which if you think about it, he’s going to have to be able to do all that stuff to get around the world and deliver those presents.
Hallie: Honestly, I love that. There’s this very, very powerful person and all he wants to do with his big, strong powers is just go deliver presents to children. When you think about the traditional Santa Claus mythos that’s just his job but the idea of thinking of him as like a mutant, that’s not just his job. He just has all these strong powers and then he made the decision to I could do literally anything, but what I will be doing is becoming Santa Claus and taking all these presents to these kids. That’s adorable.
Chris: Does it justify the surveillance though?
Hallie: Oh sure. It does.
Hallie: Absolutely, dad.
Chris: Also in 1927, the US government issued him a pilot’s license.
Hallie: Oh my God. I love that. I love how the United States military is so dedicated to truly collaborating with Santa Claus throughout the years. It’s wonderful.
Chris: It really is, but also the Canadians do it too. Both he and Mrs. Claus have Canadian e-passports.
Hallie: Amazing. Wait, what’s an e-passport?
Chris: I don’t know. I assume it’s some sort of Canadian electronic passport thing.
Hallie: Well, love it. Great work. Terrific. Do you want to hear about the farming involved with Christmas trees?
Chris: I can’t wait.
Hallie: In 2012, which was the most recent numbers I could find, there were 295,000 acres in production for Christmas trees.
Chris: Is that a lot?
Hallie: I mean, it’s not none acres. That’s a considerable amount of acres that equated to about 17 million trees being cut in 2012.
Chris: That sounds like a lot.
Hallie: It’s yeah. I mean, there’s a lot of Christmas trees around the world. There are a lot. The biggest States here in the US for it are Oregon, North Carolina, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Oregon and North Carolina are really like the two big, heavy hitters. Although the interesting thing about Christmas trees that is not really the same for any other crops, including flowers is that Christmas trees are very often procured close to your region just because one, they’re alive so they need to be taken care of well so that you can have a long Christmas tree life and two, they’re also really big and hard to move. Flowers are alive and you want to have as long shelf life as possible, but we get a lot of our flowers from South America and Europe, but they’re really, really small so it’s not that hard to move a giant Christmas tree, very hard to move around the world. So Christmas trees are very often procured within your region. You do have like Oregon supplies a lot of the Christmas trees on the West coast. North Carolina does a lot of the East coast, but like here in Texas, a lot of the Christmas trees that we see are just grown here in Texas.
Chris: Oh, cool. I had no idea.
Hallie: Yeah, pretty cool.
I mentioned like Oregon does a lot of the West coast Christmas trees, there is like one farm that is exceptionally large. I think it is the largest Christmas tree farm in the US. It’s called Holiday Tree Farms and they do about 1 million trees per year. But still, if you think about like more than 17 million trees, that’s not even a 10th of the market.
Chris: So are we going to get into this later? How long does it take to grow a Christmas tree?
Hallie: Christmas trees take like 6 to 10 years usually.
Chris: There’s this giant farm in the Pacific Northwest that sort of every 6 to 10 years, they cut down a giant swath of trees and then plant new ones and then rotate out I guess the rest of their acreage over time.
Hallie: I think what’s more common with Christmas tree farming and I’m sure it depends on the farm is you have what’s called like nurserying, where you have some older growth trees next to smaller trees so that once those older trees are cut down, the smaller trees have room to grow. It’s kind of interplanted and staggered based on age.
Hallie: The most common Christmas tree types are Fraser fir, Douglas fir, Colorado blue spruce. I think the last year I had a pine tree, which is not represented on the most common, but it was adorable and I loved it.
Chris: It was a cute little Christmas tree.
Hallie: About three quarters of Christmas tree farms sell retail. As I mentioned, a lot of Christmas tree procurement is very localized. This is a huge amount. I mean, you have about half of Christmas tree farms that do at least some wholesaling, but the majority like 75% do a good amount of retail so that is a lot of local sales.
Chris: The pop-up tents, they sell the Christmas trees. Those are basically the people that grew them. Is that what you’re saying?
Hallie: Sometimes those pop-up tents are wholesale, but sometimes they are just run by farms. Like last year I got my Christmas tree from a non-profit here in town where it’s like a fundraiser for the boys and girls club and they buy wholesale trees and then sell them here in Austin.
Chris: Got it.
Hallie: But a lot of Christmas tree farms do at least some local retail where you can come out and you can pick your own tree, you can cut your own tree down, you can pick it out of a pile or they take it into town and they set up in a parking lot or something like that. There are some like Christmas tree sales cooperatives where some farmers all come together and they rent out a parking lot together. There’s a lot of different models, but yeah, it is quite localized. Most of those smaller farms are often retirement projects for folks who maybe are from that area and their family has been doing Christmas tree farming or they were a farmer and they want something that’s a little bit more hands-off, not that Christmas tree farming is easy. There are definitely difficulties with it, particularly like the weather. It’s real cold when you have to go out there and cut all the trees down.
Hallie: But generally, you’re doing less year round maintenance because so many of your crops are just perennial. A lot of the larger ones are full-time operations, but those smaller ones can be retirement options.
Hallie: How much money is in Christmas trees? Wholesale, it’s around like between 250 and 500 million. I found a couple of different sources from different extension documents as well as industry publications and that’s about the range I saw and then for retail, it can be upwards of 2 billion so that includes wholesalers who bought Christmas trees from farmers and then sold them retail as well as farmers selling directly to retail.
Chris: Christmas is big business.
Hallie: It’s big, big, big business. I promised earlier that we would talk about this. Let’s talk about fake Christmas trees.
Hallie: Most fake Christmas trees are made of what’s called poly vinyl chloride, also known as PVC. You can also get fake Christmas trees made of aluminum, made of fiber optic cable, feathers, et cetera, et cetera, kind of whatever. Most of the fake Christmas trees, like most, most of them are all made in China.
Chris: How would you like to be a bird and see a fake Christmas tree made of feathers?
Hallie: Oh my God.
Hallie: That would be so hurtful I feel like.
Chris: It would be horrifying.
Hallie: That’s your home. The fundamental question I feel like everyone has when it comes to Christmas trees is which is more environmentally friendly, a natural tree or a fake tree so that’s what I wanted to get into here. Here’s like a little bit of the pro con breakdown or first actually, dad, I wanted to know, do you guys do a fake tree or a real tree? I don’t know.
Chris: When we do trees, we’ve done real trees. We haven’t done trees in the last couple of years just because I don’t know effort, I guess and we need to clear out the space where we would put the tree. I know historically growing up, we always had real trees although later in life, my parents or maybe just my dad got a fake tree. His parents had a fake tree. I believe that they would get out every year and they used it for 20, 30 years or something like that. It’s been a mix for me. My mom’s parents always had real trees so I was most familiar with real trees.
Hallie: Same. Like you said, we always did real trees growing up. I’ve only had like a Christmas tree once. I have like put Christmas tree ornaments on my houseplants before, which is how I did it all throughout college and grad school.
Chris: There you go.
Hallie: Then last year was my first year getting like a real actual tree, which was really fun. Here’s kind of the pro con breakdown.
Hallie: Fake trees are made of plastic. That requires a lot of oil, right? Because it’s what? It’s an oil byproduct so that’s like a lot of energy, a lot of non-renewable resources. They are also made in China so it’s a lot of transportation. Real trees require agricultural inputs. Typically, this is like a lot of pesticides to keep the trees looking nice. They do also require pruning and maintenance as they live for between 6 and 10 years.
That’s like a lot of work and can be a lot of petroleum if that is what is driving the trucks around the Christmas tree farms.
Hallie: The other big consideration with real trees is where they go at the end of their life. If they go to the dump, then they just decompose and produce a lot of methane versus if they are taken away and chipped and made into mulch and recycled or if they go and do something else where they’re not just decomposing in the dump.
Chris: Turn it into Dillo Dirt.
Hallie: Yeah, they can totally be composted for sure. That’s kind of the pro con. Here is the breakdown. There’s not a lot of science, unfortunately about like truly what is the best option. I found two life cycle analysis and one of them said, in order to balance out what you would be spending in terms of carbon on real tree versus a fake tree, you would have to keep your fake tree for more than nine years and the other study, I found said more than 20 years. One of the studies was paid for by the Christmas Tree Association of America and the other one was I found it linked on the US department of energy’s office of scientific and technical information website, but it was done by a French Canadian research firm who apparently does life cycle analysis, but this is the only study I could find from them and it was done in 2016 I think and I also couldn’t find anything under the names of the researchers other than this life cycle analysis so these are very different numbers.
I cannot say for sure that either of these life cycle analysis are really better than one or the other of them, neither of them have been cited that much. One of them obviously was paid for by the industry. The other one, I don’t know who it was paid for by, so it’s unclear which one. I can’t just go out and tell you, here’s the answer. Here’s my thoughts. When you do buy a new fake Christmas tree, unless it’s like a wooden balsa wood Christmas tree, it’s going to stay on the planet for ever, for ever and ever. It’s not going to go anywhere. If you buy a real tree, it can be decomposed. It can be turned into wood chip mulch, which we can always use more mulch. Believe me I know. That’s kind of like my take on it. My gut is if you have a fake Christmas tree already, no point in getting rid of it. But if you don’t have one and if you can’t find a used one that already exists, then maybe we don’t need to be creating more that will just stay on the planet.
Chris: Well, that sounds reasonable. Although real trees are certainly getting more and more expensive over the years, but to review, Christmas trees are generally conifers, which means they are cone bearing and we’re linking a cool video. They were like so many things popularized by a queen and thank goodness Santa Claus is benevolent with all those powers.
Hallie: No kidding.
Chris: Buy yourself a tree if you like. If not, that’s cool.
Hallie: Have a wonderful and warm winter season, everyone. Take care.
Chris: Thanks for listening to this episode of One to Grow On.
Hallie: This show is made by me Hallie Casey and Chris Casey. Our music is Something Elated by Broke for Free.
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Hallie: You can find all of our episodes and transcripts as well as information about the team and the show on our website, onetogrowonpod.com.
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Hallie: If you liked the show, please share it with a friend. Sharing is the best way to help us reach more ears.
Chris: Be sure to see what’s sprouting in two weeks.
Hallie: But until then, keep on growing.