December 15, 2012

For average Maine Christmas tree, a decade-plus of generous life and a glorious death

Conifers provide habitat, air and soil enrichment in the 12-15 years before they adorn homes

By Ben McCanna
Staff Writer

As the old song goes, Christmas trees are green when summer days are bright; they're green when winter snow is white.

click image to enlarge

Dick Bradbury, owner of Bradbury's Christmas Trees in South China, walks through his crop of 2-year-old balsam firs earlier this month. Bradbury, who plants between 500 and 1,000 trees every year, will tend to these young trees for eight more years -- pruning, fertilizing, weeding -- before they're ready for sale during a four-week window between Thanksgiving and Dec. 24. The work is time-intensive, he said.

Staff photo by Ben McCanna

click image to enlarge

Ashley Hamilton-Ellis fells a 10-year-old balsam fir earlier this month at Bradbury's Christmas Trees in South China, while husband, Pat Ellis, and dog, Gracie, look on. The couple has been cutting their own trees at the farm for four years.

Staff photo by Ben McCanna

They're also green in an environmental sense.

Throughout Maine, more than 1.2 million Christmas trees are growing quietly on about 300 plots of land. Each tree will progress slowly from seed to seedling, from youth to maturity, until they're harvested 12 years later for their brief moment of glory in living rooms and parlors throughout the land.

During that slow, silent journey, the trees will provide habitat for birds and insects and they will absorb carbon dioxide from the air and deliver it into the soil. And, increasingly, Christmas trees are finding a second life in Maine communities as mulch in parks and playgrounds or as biomass fuel.

This is the life of a Maine Christmas tree.

Humble beginnings

About half of all Maine's Christmas trees begin at the same place, in the western Maine town of Fryeburg.

Since 1917, Western Maine Forest Nurseries have raised conifer trees from seed. The company grows about 500,000 seedlings every year, some of which are sold for reforestation projects and private landscaping, "but a good chunk of them stay right here in Maine for Christmas tree production," said Rick Eastman, 57, the nursery's third-generation owner.

For the past 30 years, Eastman has worked to breed the perfect Christmas tree. His nursery is the exclusive supplier to 145 members of the Maine Christmas Tree Association, who have funded an ongoing 30-year study to produce the best possible Christmas trees -- hardy, fast-growing, insect- and disease-resistant balsam fir.

The effort is meant to save costs for growers. On average, growers invest about $1.50 per tree every year. On a mid-sized farm of 6,000 trees, that investment could top $9,000 a year.

"So, obviously, one of the goals was to shorten up the growing cycle if we could," he said. "We've been successful at doing that."

From seed to seedling, the Christmas trees stay at the nursery for two to five years, before they are shipped to growers, where they will stay for another eight to 10 years.

"When you buy a 7- to 8-foot Christmas tree, it is generally 12 to 15 years old. A lot of time, effort and money has been put into raising that tree," Eastman said. "When someone goes to spend $46 on a tree they might say, 'Boy, that seems like a lot of money.' But some people have put 12 years of their life into that tree."

Life on the farm

On an overcast day in early December, Dick Bradbury stood among his youngest crop of firs and lamented the Christmas tree business. It's hard work, he said.

"Everybody thinks you just throw them in the ground then stand there and take the money in the fall," he said, smiling. "I can't tell you how many people think that and it upsets every grower I know."

Bradbury, 57, has been growing Christmas trees at his South China home for almost 30 years, and he looked the part as he strolled between rows of balsam fir wearing a forest-green wool shirt and cap that perfectly matched his coniferous surroundings.

Bradbury got into the trade by accident, he said, as a natural extension of his earlier career for the Maine Forest Service.

In 1983, Bradbury -- a master's-level entomologist -- began planting trees on his five-acre lot as a way to research insect management for the Christmas tree industry.

Bradbury's research farm eventually grew into Bradbury's Christmas trees -- a cut-your-own farm with about 6,000 trees, ranging in years from two to 10.

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