Christmas trees growers turn to the Canaan fir

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copyright the Chronicle 12-18-13

by Natalie Hormilla

christmas tree tester
Bill Tester stands with one of his balsam and Fraser fir hybrids at his choose and cut stand in Barton. Photo by Natalie Hormilla

“I will never plant another balsam again,” said Steve Moffatt.  “Between the frost and the disease and the insect issues, I won’t.”

Mr. Moffatt owns and operates Moffatt’s Tree Farm in Craftsbury with his wife, Sharon.

This year is about the tenth year that Mr. and Ms. Moffatt have run the family business, which has been operating in some capacity or another since the 1960s.  Mr. Moffatt’s dad, Jim, still works at the farm, where he was born.

The Moffatts started growing Christmas trees sometime in the mid-1980s, Ms. Moffatt said.

They mostly wholesale but also run a choose and cut, and they, like others, are dealing with what climate change means to the industry.

Growing Christmas trees, especially on their home farm, has had its share of issues.

“This is one of those spots,” Mr. Moffat said. “You know how in the spring you hear a chance of frost?  We’ll get it.  It’s very cold here.”

So cold, that his balsam trees suffer severe frost damage at least one in every three years, he said.

“What that means for growing trees is, if you get bad frost damage, you don’t have any growth for the year.  So it was taking me about 25 to 30 percent longer, easily, to grow a tree.

“At one point I wasn’t really sure if it was even worth doing,” he said.  “But then in the — probably the early ’90s — there was this tree that was kind of introduced, or made available to the public — the Canaan fir.”

The tree is native to the Canaan Valley of West Virginia.

“Technically, it’s still a balsam.  It’s an Abies balsamea,” Mr. Moffatt said.

christmas tree tom
Tom Grime of Brownington stands with one of his stump cultures, which is his preferred method of growing Christmas trees. Photo courtesy of Mary Jean Grime

“And the big difference is that it starts growing about three weeks later than the native balsam,” Mr. Moffat said.  “So, in other words, in a year like this, what happens is the local stuff starts growing generally around Memorial Day, and that’s what happened this year.  And then it snowed on Memorial Day.”

Mr. Moffatt’s balsam trees suffered crippling spring frost damage, as did the balsams of some other growers in the area.

But when frost hit, the Canaan and Frasers weren’t yet budded, so they didn’t suffer.

Area Christmas tree growers offer both the balsam and the Fraser fir — and sometimes a hybrid of the two.  The Moffatts’ trees are about half balsam, 30 percent Canaan, and 20 percent Frasier.

The Canaan fir is vital to the Moffatts’ business.

christmas tree canaan
Canaan fir has longer, rounder needles.

“I don’t think I could be in the tree business if it wasn’t for it,” Mr. Moffatt said.  “I couldn’t be in the tree business here.”

He said he’s never had frost damage on a Canaan fir, and he’s been growing them since 1990 or 1991.

The Moffatts have around 80 to 100 acres of trees growing in Craftsbury, Wolcott, Sheffield, Orleans, and Hardwick.

Late spring weather can make or break a Christmas tree crop.

“What sets the pace for the season growing trees is basically the weather in June, because they grow starting the end of May, or later in the case of Canaan and Fraser, and they grow throughout June, so the weather conditions in that time period have a pretty significant effect on the crop,” Mr. Moffatt said.  “And in recent years we’ve had warm and wet Junes and late Mays.

“And also, growing Christmas trees, they’re much denser than the wild trees.  So really that’s kind of perfect conditions for disease, which is generally fungi — they like that warm, moist, damp conditions….

Balsam fir is noted for its shorter, flatter needles.
Balsam fir is noted for its shorter, flatter needles.

“And most everybody I’ve talked to, it’s been more and more of an issue the past four or five years.”

The more traditional balsam tree is not only more prone to frost than the Fraser and Canaan firs, but it can have other issues as well.

“Aphids are a huge issue on balsam.  It’s a big deal.  This year was an exceptionally bad aphid year,” Mr. Moffatt said.

“The Canaan not only avoids the frost, but all the insect issues as well,” he said.  “Most of the insects are timed for bud break, so when the major pests are attacking the balsam, the Canaan are still dormant, so there’s nothing really to attack.”

Mr. Moffatt occasionally sprays his balsam trees for insect pests.

“I’ve never had to spray a Canaan in over 20 years, over two rotations,” he said. “The Fraser are much fussier about where they grow, they have to have perfectly dry soil.  The Canaan will tolerate much wetter feet.”

Most people couldn’t tell the difference between a native balsam and a Canaan fir, he said.

“Botanically, there’s a very little difference.  If I showed you a Canaan and a balsam side by side…99 percent of the public couldn’t tell the difference.  I don’t think 99 percent of growers could tell the difference.”

The general public may be unfamiliar with the tree, by name, because many growers sell it under the name balsam.

“There’s quite a few of them out there, but you hardly ever hear of a grower saying they have Canaan fir for sale, and I don’t differentiate.  I just mix them right in,” Mr. Moffatt said.  “I don’t think anyone would really care in the end.”

The Moffatts have put a lot of thought into growing Canaan fir.

“It’s been a multi-year, a ten-year plan,” Ms. Moffatt said.  “We just suffered so many years of this devastating frost.  Climate change is warming things up and things are growing earlier than they should.”

Still, the Moffatts will continue to grow the balsam they already have.

“If one seeded itself in, I’d grow it.  But if you have to buy a transplant and go through the trouble of putting it in the ground, I wouldn’t plant a balsam,” Mr. Moffatt said.

“It’s just not worth it for the time and the capital input.  You may as well go with the Canaan or Fraser.”

Most Christmas tree growers represented by the New Hampshire and Vermont Christmas Tree Association were sold out of their wholesale stock, or close to it, by December 12, according to that organization’s executive director, Jim Horst.

Mr. Horst grows between 50,000 to 60,000 trees for wholesale only — a mix of balsam, Fraser fir, and Canaan fir — on his home farm in Bennington.  He was hit by this year’s late spring frost, but just on his balsam.

“Frasier typically break bud two to three weeks later, so generally by the time they start growing, the danger of frost has passed,” Mr. Horst said.  “Fraser don’t typically have a problem with the late season frost.”

Mr. Horst has had Fraser trees drown in heavy rainfall, which he’s been getting more and more of.

The growing prevalence of Canaan fir could be an answer to climate change, he said.

“A Canaan fir will start growing maybe even a month later, they’re very late starting.  Unless you have a frost in early June, a Canaan isn’t going to be damaged by frost,” he said.  “And the Canaan isn’t affected by a couple of the common diseases that affect balsam.”

There’s yet another merit to growing the Canaan fir.

“If you plant a Canaan and a Fraser side by side, the Canaan will be at market probably two years sooner,” Mr. Horst said.

The tree simply grows faster, but also it isn’t held back by issues related to weather, bugs, and disease.

Even with all its attributes, Mr. Horst considers the Canaan fir to be in third place — “by a long shot” —  behind the two better known Christmas trees grown in the area.

Frasier fir is known for its rounder needles and silverish underside.
Fraser fir is known for its rounder needles and silverish underside.

“They grow faster but they don’t command the same price that a Fraser fir does,” he said.  “The Fraser fir is the Cadillac.  It’s superior in terms of needle retention, so the customer wants it.  Especially those people who have it up for five weeks.”

When people think of balsam trees versus Fraser fir, the usual dichotomy is the pleasant fragrance of the balsam, and the long-lasting needle retention of the Fraser.

The Canaan fir’s needle retention is comparable to a balsam, and definitely not better than a Fraser, Mr. Horst said.

“It isn’t bad, but it isn’t superior.  It’s average.”

And does it smell good?

“It doesn’t quite have the fragrance of a balsam.  There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” he said.

Other growers said they believe the Canaan has the balsam fragrance — but they added that they hardly notice those smells just because they’re around them so much.

Mr. Horst put up a Canaan Christmas tree at his house for the first time this year.

“So I’m going to see,” just how good it smells for himself, he said.

He also thinks that balsam will always be important to this area simply because it’s the only native Christmas tree.

The Fraser fir, though now common, hails from North Carolina.  The Canaan fir is even newer to area growers.

“They’ve only been grown in Vermont, that I know of, oh, I’d say for 15 years,” Mr. Horst said.

The Canaan fir fills a need for some growers.

“Vermont and New Hampshire are big areas with lots of different soil types and different typographies and different microclimates, and no one tree will do well in all conditions.”

Bill and Sue Tester of Tester’s Star Farm in Barton — which operates as Tester’s Vermont Christmas Trees in December — introduced the Canaan fir to Christmas tree shoppers for the first time this year.

They planted them about eight years ago.  The Canaan has solved issues relating to frost and insect pests, said Mr. Tester.

“It was a tough year for balsam.  I had to leave a lot of them in the field because they were burnt with the frost, and the rain was very hard on them,” he said.

Some of their balsam in certain places did really well, but two of their balsam plantations couldn’t be cut at all this year.

Like the Moffatts, the Testers won’t plant balsam again, Mr. Tester said.

“I’m beginning to think you can’t grow balsam anymore in Vermont.  Within the last four years we’ve had frost damage, and again with all the rain we’ve been seeing in the summer, it’s really been tough on them.”

The Testers haven’t planted a new balsam in years, he said.  They do plant a hybrid of the balsam and Fraser, called a Fralsam fir.

“It’s a very pretty tree,” Mr. Tester said.  “Sometimes it’s a little bit later budding, and sometimes it’s not.”

The Testers’ farm has thousands of Canaan fir, but only some were ready for this year.

They have about 250 acres of Christmas trees, spread over five farms, and have been in the business for about 25 years.

Mr. Tester thinks the needle retention of a Canaan fir is somewhat better than a balsam’s.  He doesn’t have too many Canaans at his choose and cut in Barton because he gets requests for them through his wholesale orders.

The Testers’ son runs their stand in Connecticut, where they’d already sold out of all their Canaan fir late last week.  They’d also already sold out of their wholesale stock.

Because of the issues associated with growing balsam, less money goes into growing each Canaan and Fraser fir, Mr. Tester said.

Though he loves balsam trees, Mr. Tester said his farm will only plant Fraser and Canaan seedlings from here on out, due to the changing weather.

“You got so much money involved, there’s not much you can do about it.  You have a frost like this — it takes a couple years to get back out of it,” he said.

Bill and Judy Szych have been growing Canaan fir for ten or 15 years, Mr. Szych said.  Wet soil is what drew them to it.

“I lost a lot of Fraser to wet feet,” Mr. Szych said.  “Balsam too, but Fraser were much, much worse with root rot.”

The Szychs also had issues with aphids this year, somewhat worse than in other years.

“But generally we don’t spray because we try not to,” Mr. Szych said.  “We had no serious problems.  If a tree is too badly infested with something, I just leave it, that’s all.”

Mr. Szych has been growing Christmas trees pretty much since he was a 12-year-old in Connecticut, he said.  He’s been growing them in Vermont for 25 to 30 years.  He used to be a forester for a timber company.

The Szychs run two choose and cuts, in Newport and Brownington, and do very little wholesale through their business, Breezy Hill Acres.  They’ve operated their stand in Newport, across from Cumberland Farms, for about 18 years.  They have about 25,000 trees on 15 or so acres.

The Canaan fir makes up about 25 percent of their tree total.

Most customers don’t know the Canaan fir exists, Mr. Szych said.

Bill Asack, who owns Asack & Son Tree Farm in Barton along with his partner and son, Andy Asack, grows Canaan fir, too — but not because he has to.

“I’m not so susceptible to frost,” he said.

The Asacks’ trees are on a hill.  Mr. Asack has been growing trees since 1980.

His soil is also well drained enough that he grows a variety of Christmas trees.

“Each grower has a different site, and you have to match your trees to your site, and certain sites are more susceptible to frost, and certain sites are more susceptible to flooding,” he said.

Even deer can factor into a Christmas tree crop.

“If you have balsam and Fraser growing side by side, the deer will go right by the balsam,” he said.

Mr. Asack agrees that balsam can be damaged by native bugs that are timed for that tree’s bud break, like the sawfly.  But that bug can actually continue its season by hopping onto another set of trees that are breaking bud soon after, he said.

“So your later breaking trees like Canaan can actually be more susceptible to that insect because that insect has a longer window to get in there and chew that bud.”

“If there’s a lot of native balsam around your site, whatever’s cycling around your site is going to jump out of the woods.”

The Asacks have about 50 acres of trees, and they’re in the process of expanding, Mr. Asack said.

“In a few years, we’ll have everything that’s high and dry planting.”

Asack & Son has been in business for 19 years, and all their trees are sold right on their farm in Barton.  They grow seedlings for themselves and for wholesale, too.

“For my own seed, I’ve got mountain balsam, cooks balsam, I’ve got hybrids, and I’ve got a few special trees,” Mr. Asack said.  “Anything that’ll grow here, I’m trying to grow it, because I know someone wants to buy it.”

They experiment plenty, and are even working on crossing a Korean fir with a balsam.

“My thinking is you should never put all your eggs in one basket.  You should grow all the varieties you can grow.  If an insect happens to like one variety a lot, then you have others you can turn to.  If you have a flood problem and you have too much Fraser, then you’ll lose all your trees.  If you only grow one species, it’s kind of risky really.”

He said he sees a lot of growers struggle with growing trees that aren’t right for their site.  The Asacks grow Canaan fir as part of a diversified plan.

“Each farm is different.  Because someone says that’s all they’re going to grow, it’s probably because it’s all they can grow,” he said.

Mr. Horst is going on his fifteenth year as executive director of the area Christmas tree association.

“Years and years ago, we used to sell white spruce, and we used to sell Scotch pine, but no one’s talking about white spruce or Scotch pine anymore.  I’ll bet less than one percent of the trees in Vermont or New Hampshire are those.  Fifty years ago, there were quite a few of them.  But white spruce don’t keep their needles well, and there were better alternatives.  And there were problems growing Scotch pine in particular, all kinds of disease problems.  And the Douglas fir, it’s a little too cold for them up here.”

Mr. Horst wonders what new trees will come to the Christmas tree market over time.

“There’s experimentation going on all the time, like with a Korean fir, or a Turkish fir, and there are two or three other ones,” he said.

There are people doing genetic research on how to get a Fraser to better tolerate wet conditions, he said.

“There’s even an exotic conifer association of people that enjoy this and who plant a couple hundred of this or that, and that’s how you make progress,” he said.

“That’s how you learn how you grow.”

Tom and Mary Jean Grime of Brownington have an interesting way of growing their Christmas trees.  Instead of planting transplants or seedlings, or sowing seeds, they do what are called stump cultures.

Stump cultures are like baby trees that come from the stump of another tree that’s already been harvested.

“Instead of having trees in a line, you’re developing trees within this mother plant,” Mr. Grime said.

“I leave about a foot or two of brush on the bottom, and after each tree is cut, you’ve got a high stump, and those branches will curl up toward the sun, or get stump sprout,” he said.

“I do it that way because with planting, often times, you’re dependent on weather and insects and soil conditions.  And when you’ve got an existing root structure, in my mind, I don’t want to lose that.”

Mr. Grime said he came across the stump culture growing method by accident, after noticing new growth on stumps from trees that were cut high.

“I guess my dad noticed it,” he said.

Some other growers interviewed dabbled in stump cultures some, but none worked with them as deliberately as Mr. Grime.

The Grimes manage three different properties of Christmas trees over roughly ten acres; one in Albany and two in Danville, besides the choose and cut site at their house.

They also sell to the wholesale market, with most of their trees going to Maine.  They also have a lot at the East Main General Store in Newport.

Mr. Grime has been growing trees since he was a ten-year-old helping his dad, he said.  He’s managed different tree lots for somewhere between 20 and 30 years, cultivating stump cultures that whole time.

Mr. Grime, who grows balsam and Fraser, hasn’t planted a new tree at his home site in about eight years.

There are some advantages to growing stump cultures.

“One, I’m not going to have to plant another Christmas tree.  I can have more time for other things,” he said.

Also, stump cultures don’t have as much competition with weeds as transplants and seedlings do, he said.

The Grimes seem to be one of the few area Christmas tree growers who think late frost wasn’t much of an issue this year.

“But a lot of my trees are Fraser,” Mr. Grimes said.

He does grow balsam at his plantation down in Danville, but he didn’t see a lot of damage there.

The lack of issue with frost could be because most of his trees are taller, Mr. Grime said.

“Close to the ground, a frost will hit, and higher up the air circulation kind of dissipates the cold temperatures,” he said.

Mr. Grime said he loses more trees to insect damage than frost.

He works full time as a rural mail carrier in St. Johnsbury.  Growing Christmas trees is something more like a hobby.  The Grimes’ choose and cut in Brownington is fairly new.

“This is just extra and just in the three years of doing the choose and cut I’ve really been thrilled with seeing people, you know their families, choose their tree,” he said.  “I just enjoy the family experience with them.”

“I’m relatively small compared to many of these guys,” he said.

Growing Christmas trees is more of a passion for him, he said.

Patrick and Melody Houle are in their fifth year of business as Houle’s Tree Farm in Canaan.

They grow roughly 65 acres of balsam, Fraser fir, and a natural hybrid of those two.  They do mostly wholesale and they have a choose and cut in Canaan.

They were hit pretty hard by this year’s late frost.

“The frost is not something that happens every year, but it does happen frequently,” Ms. Houle said.  “It’s happened twice so far in five years.”

Their hybrids made out a little better than the balsams, but even a Fraser can be hit if the frost is late enough, Ms. Houle said.

“There’s nothing safe in life,” she said.  “Like everything else, there’s a possibility of anything happening when you go doing stuff like this.”

The Houles were able to harvest only about 2,300 of the 5,000 trees that should have been mature for this year.

A lot of their trees grow wild on their own.

Asked how they plan to deal with the changing weather, Ms. Houle said, “One day at a time.”

contact Natalie Hormilla at [email protected] 

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