Christmas Tree Farmer Fights Tree-Killing Fungus

For many Loudouners, bringing home a Christmas tree is more than heading to the nearest shopping center to grab one that’s already been cut—it’s a day-long excuse to bundle up and hike through the countryside to cut down their own.

But this year, some families are finding their annual tree-cutting traditions have fewer options than in years past.

That could be because a fungus, thought by some to be the product of warmer winter temperatures and hot and humid summers, is killing thousands of trees, specifically Douglas firs and Colorado blue spruces.

The fungus has hit hardest at the 125-acre Middleburg Christmas Tree Farm, which closed for the remainder of the 2019 season after selling just 360 trees during the Nov. 29 to Dec. 1 weekend.

Owner Frans Kok asserts that steadily increasing temperatures are killing his trees, which have cut his sales by 48 percent in 2018 and by 42 percent this year. “Really, it’s the effect of climate change that is hitting us very hard,” he said.

According to the National Weather Service, this year’s average temperature at Dulles Airport was 58.5 degrees Fahrenheit, or 3.2 degrees warmer than the annual average temperature for the airport property. The average temperature at Dulles has remained above the annual average for the past five years. The last time it fell below the average temperature prior to that was in 2003.

Kok said the rising temperatures have been an impediment to Christmas tree sales for years, noting that he can no longer plant Fraser firs or Scotch pines because they’ve became susceptible to the heat and subsequent fungal attacks.

Thousands of Douglas firs at the Middleburg Christmas Tree Farm are being killed off by a fungus that owner Frans Kok says has been caused by climate change. [Patrick Szabo/Loudoun Now]

But while Kok said he has been able to control the fungus in previous years, those measures are no longer effective.

“Now, it’s totally out of hand,” he said. “Next year is not going to be good, either.”

The disease has affected his Douglas firs to the point of no return, he said. He couldn’t sell a single one this season. Kok’s Colorado blue spruces have also been hit nearly as bad, which he said was surprising because that species is the most resilient one he sells.

Come February, Kok said he’ll be busy cutting down thousands of trees and burning them, rather than taking them to the county landfill where they could spread the disease to other plants. “We’re going to have some major fires,” he said.

Relying on New Tree Species

In addition to keeping a close eye on the few hundred blue spruces he has left, Kok has also been planting a new species of trees that, he said, promise to be more resistant to the fungus. He’s been plantingup to 6,000 of them each year for the past two years.

Those most prominently include the Canaan fir and the Baby Blue spruce. Kok said that both species so far are doing well, but that he is a little concerned about the Baby Blues because they have similar genetic makeups to that of the blue spruce, which makes them good substitutes for the blue spruce but also puts them in danger of being affected by the fungus.

The seedlings aren’t cheap, either. They’re costing Kok triple the amount he normally pays for traditional trees, like the Norway Spruce—$1.50 as opposed to 50 cents per seed.

Middleburg Christmas Tree Farm Owner Frans Kok has planted thousands of Canaan firs in hopes that they will grow into mature trees in the next five years that won’t be affected by the fungus that’s killing thousands of his other trees. [Patrick Szabo/Loudoun Now]

First planted two years ago, those seedlings should grow into mature, 6-foot-tall trees ready for cutting in the next five years, which should put the Middleburg Christmas Tree Farm’s sales back on track.

Aside from the experimental seedlings he’s trying out, Kok also continues to plant and sell Norway spruces and concolor firs, but can no longer sell white pines because they’ve become less popular with buyers. Kok said that’s unfortunate because white pines are resilient to the fungus.

A Widespread Disease or Localized Infection?

But while Kok says the fungal problem isn’t specific to his farm, other Loudoun farmers don’t seem to be affected by it.

Lou Nichols, the owner of Loudoun Nursery north of Purcellville, said that thousands of his trees have died, but not from a fungus. He said those trees died from an excessively wet fall 2018 and spring 2019.

He mentioned that most, if not all, Christmas tree farmers in Virginia have been affected by the recent rainy seasons to some extent, so much to the point that it was a topic of discussion at the Virginia Christmas Tree Growers Association summer 2019 meeting. “A lot of people lost trees,” he said.

According to the National Weather Service, Dulles Airport recorded 17.72 inches of precipitation in fall 2018, or 7.14 inches more than the annual autumn average for the airport property. In spring this year, it rained 12.42 inches, or a little more than one inch more than the annual spring average.

The dilemma that some of Loudoun’s Christmas tree farms are in parallels one that many of the county’s wine, hops and produce growers found themselves in last year—one of the wettest years on record for many Virginia farms.

In 2018, the National Weather Service reported Dulles to have experienced more than 5.5 feet of precipitation, or 25.2 inches more than the annual average for the property.

According to the Virginia Wine Board’s Virginia 2018 Commercial Grape Report, grape yields were down 35 percent in 2018 from 2017, with a reported 1,763 tons of grapes lost.

In the hops-growing world, farmers last year began to worry about the heavy rainfall causing hot and humid atmospheric conditions, which are conducive to mildew.

Some of Loudoun’s produce farmers also lost crops to fungi caused by the moisture. The rain additionally washed off any fungicide the farmers were using on their crops, forcing some of them to harvest what they could before allowing entire plants to die.

Farmers differ in their opinions on what’s damaging their livelihoods. Nichols said it’s possible that his problem could be a product of warmer temperatures, but he’s still unsure whether that’s actually the case or not.

He did acknowledge a needlecast disease that affects blue spruces calledRhizosphaera, in which the needles of infected trees turn yellow and fall off. He said a separate disease also affectsDouglas firs, which, he said, is why many area farmers no longer grow that species of tree.

Steven Wolff, the owner of the Snickers Gap Christmas Tree Farm near Round Hill, alsorecognized that tree fungal diseases are on the rise in the U.S., but said he couldn’t specify whether they’re related to climate change.

But Wolff said his trees haven’t been hit by the fungus or the seasonal wet weather. “Our trees had excellent survival this year,” he said.

Wolff mentionedthat throughout his 39 yearsgrowing Douglas firs and Colorado blue spruces, he and his team have developed a “rigorous regimen” spotting and treating tree diseases.

He said Snickers Gap has invested in specialized machinery to protect its trees. Wolff noted that his farm adheres to Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences’ recommendations for addressing potential disease issues.

Kok said that Snickers Gap’s higher elevation at the base of a foothill of the Blue Ridge could also be helping its trees to stay alive, since every 1,000 feet of elevation equates to a decrease of about 3.5degrees Fahrenheit.

Help from the Forest Service

According to U.S. Forest Service National Press Officer Babete Anderson, the service frequently publishes manuals to aid Christmas tree farmers in their fights against the diseases and pests that plague their businesses. One of those is the Christmas Tree Pest Manual, which provides recommendations for farmers who own firs and spruces affected by different fungi. Those include recommendations to promote air movement by controlling weeds, pruning low branches and refraining from shearing trees during wet weather so that affected spores aren’t carried to healthy trees.

The Forest Service also operates sixnurseries and two seed extractories that nurture plants and seeds to restore native ecosystems, in addition to operatingseveral disease resistance breeding programs that test the resistance of native trees to common forest diseases.

Christmas 2020 and Beyond

While Kok isn’t expecting to recover completely for the 2020 season, he is hoping to open for longer than three days next year. After that, he’s expecting a bit of an uptick in 2021 and then another boost in 2022—the season he feels he’ll once again sell upwards of 1,000 trees.

For now, though, he’s closed for the season and will only open by request to sell one of his larger trees, which are about 30 feet tall and cost about $500.

pszabo@loudounnow.com

Middleburg Christmas Tree Farm Owner Frans Kok takes a stroll through one of his tree fields, where hundreds of Douglas firs are dying from, what he says to be, a fungus caused by climate change. [Patrick Szabo/Loudoun Now]