Justine Quealy
Justine Quealy
Climate Planning Technician

To Go Real or Faux: A Christmas Tree Story

It’s the age-old question debated each year by friends and family who celebrate Christmas – do you put up a real or fake Christmas tree? The debate is often framed around which choice is more environmentally conscious, and I find myself solidly in the real-deal corner. Here’s why.

COMM JQ XmasTree Cropped 2017 12California is host to many Christmas tree farms, with a large concentration of them located in the Sierra Nevada. These growers represent a shining example of how tree farms benefit the environment, boost their local economy, and promote wonderful traditions within the community. The California Christmas Tree Association has provided a list of farms so that you and yours can join in the fun and visit your local Christmas tree farm to bring the beauty of a real tree into your home this holiday season. Here are my top ten reasons to go with a real Christmas tree this year:

  1. Beauty: There is nothing better than enjoying the deep green color, and the wonderful fresh-pine fragrance of a real Christmas tree.

  2. Safety: Did you know that a well-cared for fresh tree is more fire resistant than an artificial plastic one? Fire departments have tested the effects of fire on both, and while the real tree remained mostly intact due to the tree’s water content, the artificial tree acted as an accelerant as the plastics melted.

  3. Environmental benefits: During their growing period on the farm, these trees absorb carbon dioxide and emit oxygen, creating a carbon sequestration system that improves air quality. The trees themselves help to stabilize soil and the water supply, especially in areas where other crops cannot be supported by the landscape and soil type.

  4. Renewable resource: As an agricultural crop, real trees are a renewable resource, and growers plant a few new seedlings for every harvested tree. Some growers also employ stump culture, a technique in which a tree is harvested leaving the lowest tier of branches and enough stump for a new tree (or two!) to grow off of the stump. Stump culture reduces the need for seedlings, and is a more efficient use of water and fertilizers on the farm.

  5. Recyclable: As a completely biodegradable product, real trees will not last for centuries in a landfill the way that artificial, plastic trees will. In fact, most Christmas tree farms have a recycling program for patrons, and their trees will be turned into mulch for the farm to use. Other organizations collect Christmas trees to use in a variety of ways including building wildlife habitat, fish spawning, zoo animal enrichment programs, and even biomass production.

  6. Transitional landscape: Christmas tree farms create scenic green belts that promote secondary open space between urban and wild areas. This type of agricultural crop serves as a transitional link for both people and wildlife between impervious populated areas, and more densely forested areas.

  7. Economy: There are many economic benefits to choosing a locally grown tree. Over 80% of artificial trees are imported from China, while the U.S. Christmas tree industry creates more than 100,000 U.S. jobs across the nation’s 15,000 tree farms. Most tree farms are small businesses that also sell local and handmade items alongside their trees during the holiday season which further supports the local economy.

  8. Small carbon footprint: The artificial tree industry creates a large carbon footprint due to the manufacturing of the trees made from fossil-fuel plastics, and the distribution and transportation (mostly from China to the U.S.) to consumers. The plastic material can be a potential source of hazardous lead and the state of California warns consumers against letting children around these plastics. The long-term environmental burden an artificial tree poses by remaining indefinitely in a landfill is not offset by its decorative re-use each year.

  9. Community engagement: Enjoying your local Christmas tree farm can continue year-round through educational opportunities and events provided by Christmas tree farmers. Many farms offer school tours, host special events in the off-season and engage with other local community organizations and charities.

  10. Sierra Nevada connection: Choosing a real Christmas tree grown in the Sierra supports the environmental, social, and economic benefits that these farms provide to our region. Supporting local businesses that have integrated environmental benefits is a win-win for the people and places that we have grown to love here.

MountainViewTrees 2017 12My cousins, Anne and Joe, established Mountain View Christmas Tree Farm in 1981 in Paradise, CA, and it is a family tradition to get our Christmas  tree from their farm every year. They grow six varieties of Christmas trees totaling 14,880 trees growing on their 40 acre farm. I sat down with my cousin and owner/operator of the farm to discuss some of his favorite parts of tree farming. According to Joe, tree farming is the greatest job in the world, and that is evident in the way he and Anne have run the farm and business for over 30 years.

For them, growing trees in an environmentally conscientious way is a natural part of the job. The trees are grown in clay-rich soil which is good for water retention, and use mostly drip irrigation which is energy efficient and reduces water demand in this drought sensitive area. Stump culture is employed as often as possible to decrease growing time, reduce fuel spent on mowing rows, and eliminate the need for additional seedlings. The most impactful measure is provided by the “Merry Mulcher” which they use to recycle patron’s Christmas trees and other farm debris into mulch. Mulching saves on irrigation, keeps weeds down and reduces the need for mowing, saves on labor costs, and decreases the need for chemical spraying. The mulch itself would otherwise become a waste product, but in this case it is reused on the farm and kept out of landfill. The farm also serves as a wildlife connection area, which is a vital transitional space between urban and rural areas. It is important to them that this type of farming fosters sustainable land use, ensures good fire management, and serves as an educational example of agriculture to the community, all while providing wonderful family traditions and holiday memories for years to come.

Now that you’re duly apprised of the many reasons I'd recommend decorating your home with a real life tree, do with it what you will and simply focus on having a fabulous holiday season however you see fit!