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2005 drought may affect Christmas trees in future
Illinois Correspondent

OAKDALE, Ill. — Reports of a shortage in Christmas trees available to consumers in north-central Illinois have proven, to paraphrase the immortal Mark Twain, to be greatly exaggerated.

Recent, confusing news reports from national wire services seemed to indicate that due to the summer drought that gripped most of the Midwest and parts of Illinois in particular, finding fresh, locally produced Christmas trees would pose a challenge. Though some growers have reported light brown or yellow patches on mature trees caused by drought stress, many producers said they encountered little to no problems with this year’s crop.

However, the 2005 drought could affect trees that will not mature for a few more years, experts caution.

“The tree farmers I have talked to had a high mortality rate of trees they planted this spring, but found only a slight increase in the mortality rates of the established trees,” said Greg Alfeldt, president of the Illinois Christmas Tree Assoc. and a tree farmer from Oakdale. “Growers will probably have to ship trees in, say, in the years 2011 and 2012, but not this year.”

A story published by Gwinnett Daily Online Edition stated that farmers in northern and central Illinois, the areas hardest hit by drought conditions, reported a nearly 90 percent mortality rate for newly planted trees, including one tree farm near Woodstock which lost “nearly all” of its 8,000 seedlings.

At least two central Illinois tree farmers reported little seedling damage. However, as with corn and bean yields, drought effects seem to be widely varied across the upper portion of the state. “Our trees are fine, though I do suspect some growers have been short,” reported Brimfield tree farmer Bill Cinnamon, who has owned and operated Cinnamon Tree Farm for more than 25 years.

Jan Blank, owner of Blank’s Evergreen Acres in Creve Coeur, said that he didn’t see any drought damage on his mature trees and expects little damage to future crops due to the drought.

“I don’t see drought damage doing harm this year, and I don’t know that there will be a shortage down the road,” said Blank, who has been in the “you-cut” Christmas tree business since 1992 and farms around 8,000 trees on seven acres. “We didn’t lose that many seedlings, but we did lose a few more than normal. Once these trees get started and get their roots down, it doesn’t seem as if drought affects them. We’ll have to see if any problems arise in the future, but drought doesn’t affect mature Christmas trees.”

Blank said a tree-farmer friend of his lost nearly all of his seedlings this year, but the friend was growing on sandy soil.

“I’m (growing) on clay,” Blank explained. “Sand dries quicker and gets blown around, and so the roots dry quicker. Tree seedlings are just like any other crop- if it doesn’t get enough water, it doesn’t grow.”

Most southern Illinois tree growers experienced little or no drought conditions due to rains spawned by hurricanes and other systems. Some north-central growers took the unusual step of planting late-fall tree crops, Gwinnett reported.

Published in the December 21, 2005 issue of Farm World.