The tradition of bringing an evergreen into a home has pagan roots thousands of years old. Christians in Germany did it 400 years ago. Hessian mercenaries are thought to be the first in America. In 1804, they raised a tree in their barracks near present day Chicago. By 1900, one in every, five American families decorated an evergreen, and by 1930 a Christmas tree was found in almost every household.
Until the mid-20 century, most Americans cut their own tree or purchased one that was forest-grown. Now, Christmas trees are grown on plantations. North Carolina is the nation's number two producer, with over 50 million trees on 25,000 acres. Drive through any of the state's far western counties and you will see rows of Frasier Firs stretching from creek bottoms to hilltops, their blue-green foliage standing out against the bare ground. Bare ground, you ask? Yes, bare ground.
Unknown to many people, Christmas tree production is a chemically intensive operation. Herbicides are the most visible chemicals used. Grass and weeds are suppressed from early spring to fall through a combination of pre-emergent and post-emergent products. Mites and aphids are controlled using an organophosphate. The organophosphate family is on the EPA's short list of "soon to be banned"; however, the agribusiness industry works hard to ensure that this ban does not happen.
Manmade nitrogen fertilizers may well be the most destructive chemicals used on tree farms. Petroleum-derived nitrogen is highly water soluble with 50% potentially ending up in our streams and creeks. Nitrogen is typically applied at 100 lbs. per acre. One hundred times 25,000 acres is a lot of pollution.
With all that said, here's the positive news. The North Carolina Department of Agriculture has been working with tree growers to lessen their environmental impact. And a handful of growers have taken a risk, shed all the chemicals, and attempted to grow Fraser Firs organically.
Celebration of the holiday season with an organic Christmas tree is one of many steps in making one of America's favorite traditions healthier for people.
Curtis Buchanan lives in Jonesborough, TN and owns Glen Ayre Tree Farm in Mitchell County, NC, the first certified organic Christmas tree farm in the United States.