This past spring, Michael Smolak and his team planted more than 4,000 Christmas trees on their farm in North Andover, expecting to sell them to customers come late fall. But within a few months, every single one was dead.
“They all dried up,” he said.
The culprit behind all those dead trees: Drought, which hit New England hard this past summer and which experts say was likely exacerbated by climate change. By July, 94 percent of Massachusetts was under moderate drought conditions or worse. Nearby states were pummeled, too.
“In all my years that I’ve been doing this — and I’ve been doing this for over 50 years — I’ve never seen such such a deep drought,” Smolak said.
Drought, which is becoming more frequent and severe amid the climate crisis, is a key contributor to national Christmas tree shortages this year. Slashed yields all over the country — from Kentucky to Texas — have made the trees harder to find and pushed up costs.
The dry conditions were especially treacherous for young trees like the ones Smolak planted. Full-grown Christmas trees — usually evergreen conifer, like spruces, pines, or firs — can be resilient to weather extremes. But the same varieties tend to be highly sensitive to dry conditions when they’re first planted and before they establish their roots, said Jill Sidebottom, spokeswoman for the National Christmas Tree Association, a trade group representing more than 700 Christmas tree farms nationwide.
“If trees are planted, and it gets really dry soon after, those seedlings may die or may not survive,” she said.
Smolak opened his farm to customers the day after Thanksgiving, but closed it after just a few hours over concerns that it was not “fair to the public” to sell brown, dried-out trees. Still, he’s able to keep his business open for the season because he imported an additional 2,000 Christmas trees from Quebec, which wasn’t as badly hit by drought this year.
“Those actually look as good as I’ve ever seen them,” he said.
But some New England Christmas tree farms — including Shire Tree Farm in Scituate, Bedrock Christmas Tree Farm in South Kingstown, R.I., and Clarks Tree Farm in Tiverton, R.I. — were forced to remain closed for the season. Others, including Turkey Hill Farm in Haverhill, closed early due to shortages.
“The summer drought took its toll on our Fraser firs,” Bedrock Christmas Tree Farm wrote in a statement posted on their website. “They will need this year to recover. Everybody do the rain dance!”
Smolak intends to apply for financial assistance from the federal government to help cover his losses. Still, he said, the financial toll of dead crops can be significant for farmers.
Customers are seeing the effects of decreased yields, too. This year, Christmas trees cost 10 percent more on average, according to the National Christmas Tree Association, and drought is a key reason why.
Christmas tree shortages could become more common in the future because climate change — ever a Scrooge — is set to make drought more frequent and severe across much of the US, including the Northeast. It’s a problem for the Christmas tree sector that evades easy answers.
In theory, one option would be to plant Christmas trees that are better suited to dry conditions, like the Douglas fir, which is native to the US West. But Sidebottom says those trees would likely fare poorly in places like the Northeast where it’s not always dry. Douglas firs are also highly susceptible to foliar diseases, especially when they get wet.
Genetic scientists are currently working to identify trees that are better adapted to dry conditions.
There are also gels on the market that contain special polymers designed to help lock moisture into roots, which are dipped immediately before planting. Sidebottom said the gels work similarly to the absorbent material in diapers.
Those materials might help farmers “hedge their bets” against dry conditions, said Sidebottom. But they’re not a surefire fix, and they can be expensive, she said.
Another option: More widespread irrigation. Currently, 96 percent of all Christmas tree farm acreage nationwide relies only on rain for water, said Sidebottom, citing federal data.
Jim Lattanzi, president of Hollis Hills Farm in Fitchburg, whose Christmas tree acreage is irrigated, experienced minimal losses this year. Of the 6,000 trees his team planted, they lost only about 250 — which were grown on the farm’s only non-irrigated plot.
Irrigation systems can contribute to global warming as many are powered by planet-heating fossil fuels, but they can run on renewable energy. Installing watering systems can also be expensive — Lattanzi said his system cost hundreds of thousands of dollars — but he noted that the Natural Resources Conservation Service has a program that helps cover the cost.
Smolak says he expects to see more Christmas tree farms change their business models to better adapt to the changing climate. Some may import more trees for sale, while others will pivot to “agricultural tourism” and sell dairy products, sleigh rides through their farms, and baked goods. But he’s not sure what exactly the future of his industry will look like.
“What the future brings for Christmas trees, I’m really uncertain,” he said.