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A mix of trees planted in April will give Empire Evergreen farm an idea of how well the new Turkish fir will thrive. Photo by Matt Martin, WSKG
A mix of trees planted in April will give Empire Evergreen farm an idea of how well the new Turkish fir will thrive. Photo by Matt Martin, WSKG

Christmas tree farm branches out to fight disease

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Every year, Christmas tree farmers lose some of their crop to disease.

A fungus that attacks the root of the tree is well-established in many parts of the country. And it's more and more of a problem for New York tree farmers.

One tree farm in the Southern Tier is trying out a species of fir that seems to be more resistant to the disease.

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Reported by

Matt Martin

Dave Weil of Empire Evergreens in Painted Post is putting the final touches on a Christmas tree he has just sold. “This is the final product,” he says.  “Ten years of work have gone into this moment when we hand it off to the customer and they can take it home and put it in their living room.”

After all the hard work and dedication, Weil says it can be hard to watch his trees leave the farm. “It actually pains me to see the fields cleared out.   And yes I know they’ll grew right back and they’ll be big again next year for the ones that are six feet now will be our seven and eight-footers next year. But it is difficult, as a farmer, to see.”

He also says it is difficult to watch trees die.  Lots of things can kill a tree, but a fungus called phytophthora is a growing threat to farmers.  It lives in the soil and attacks the tree’s root system.

Elizabeth Lamb is a professor at Cornell University.  She works with Christmas tree farmers on how to protect their trees from disease. “Any wet soil is a potentially good host to the pathogen of the phytophthora root rot.  And you cannot remove it from the soil aside from fumigation which is cost prohibitive on a big scale.”

Lamb describes phytopthora like having a problem with your circulatory system.  “It’s affecting the ability of the plant to take up water.  And eventually you’ll see a color change in the tree because it’s not getting the nutrients and water it needs to survive.”

That’s why tree farmers across the country have started planting Turkish Fir.  They hope it will be more resistant to phytophthora.

Ricky Bates is a professor at Penn State University and studies Christmas trees.  Bates planted 3,000 Turkish Firs at 10 different sites.  One in each of the major Christmas tree growing regions in the U.S.  “They sure are pretty trees,” he says.  “The needles are nice and very glossy... very shiney.”

Bates says that Turkish Fir isn’t new to the U.S. but it has never been grown commercially. He’s hoping his study will show it can be a success for growers. And one major benefit is that Turkish Fir has proven to be more resistant to phytopthora. “Hopefully it will be a crop that growers can make a little more profit on and not have to struggle with the same kind of disease issues that they do now with some species.”

At Empire Evergreens, 12 rows of trees stretch for a quarter mile. They’re a mix of balsam fir, Norway spruce, and the new Turkish fir. They’re little, eight to 10 inches tall.   A Charlie Brown Christmas tree would look big by comparison. 

These were planted back in April to determine how well the species will grow in the area. The Turkish is a slow growing tree.  And Dave Weil knows he is taking a risk by growing it. “If it takes 10 years that’s too slow I really want a return in seven to eight years and get the next crop in and growing.”

But Weil understands it’s a useful research project.  And says the risk is just a normal part of doing business with nature.

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