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Christmas tree farmers discuss effects of New England drought on their harvest

Last summer, New England experienced one of the worst droughts the region had seen in over a century. Many drought advisory warnings were given all summer and into the fall, including on the University of Massachusetts campus. Students were advised to take shorter showers and only do full loads of laundry due to the water shortage.

Although Amherst and other parts of Massachusetts have gotten a decent amount of rain this autumn, it cannot cure the summer drought. Many trees leaves did not turn colors and the needles fell off pine trees, including the trees people use to put in their homes for Christmas.

There are many farms around Amherst and western Massachusetts that grow Christmas trees. The lack of rain has had a significant effect on the number of trees grown for this holiday season.

Dick Spencer of Crane Hill Tree Farm in Washington, Massachusetts has experienced the effects first handed.

“I lost about 30 percent of my very young trees, those that were planted either in 2015 or 2016,” Spencer said. “The older trees that had well established root systems fared fairly well.”

Spencer added that while new tree growth in the spring may have been a little less than average, it was not serious. Spencer said all the trees of marketable health are ready for the season and that the small ones lost would be replaced next spring.

Other farms were more fortunate, such as the Itty Bitty Tree Farm in Windsor, Mass. The Itty Bitty Tree Farm may have been helped by their lack of young trees.

“Actually, our trees came through the summer in excellent shape,” Charles Sturtevant of the tree farm said. “We did not plant any new ones this year. If we had, the drought may have affected them.”

Jeff Kingsbury of Kingsbury’s Christmas Trees in Deerfield said that running a Christmas tree farm is a lot more work than one would assume.

He said most Christmas tree varieties are ready to harvest at the popular height of five to seven feet in about eight years. About 1,500 trees can be planted per acre, using a standard five-by-five foot spacing.

To provide a stable yearly income, Kingsbury said most growers plant or re-plant one-eighth of their acreage every year, which is about 200 trees per acre.

Kingsbury has had major problems with the soil at his farm this year.

“We had two problems with the drought because our soil has a deep sand base under the topsoil,” he said. “We lost approximately 300 to 400 seedlings and some trees that had been planted as much as four years ago. I also don’t believe we had as much growth as usual.”

Yet he said he has a plan so this does not happen again.

“On our small farm, we plan on planting twice as many as last year and to introduce a new species that can handle the drought a little better,” Kingsbury said.

When looking for a Christmas tree this year, you should expect to find them shorter, more brittle, and more expensive. Despite the drought, farmers, like Spencer, aren’t giving up hope.

“Of course, we are in the Berkshires where the drought wasn’t serious as in the eastern portions of the state,” he said. “We’ve had almost 20 inches of snow so far this winter and I’m hoping for a lot more.”

Ariane Komyati can be reached at akomyati@umass.edu.

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