California’s Prolonged Drought Yields Grinch-Like Christmas Tree Supply

California’s prolonged drought has wreaked havoc to agriculture across the state. So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that its Grinch-like ways have also struck at the bastion of holiday tradition — the Christmas tree.

Christmas tree growers across the state are struggling growing issues as a shortage of rainfall has caused some varieties of trees to dry up or grow at a much slower pace.

In the Santa Cruz Mountains above Los Gatos, Jim Beck, founder of Patchen Christmas Tree Farm, walked through the hillside blanketed in trees of all sizes and varieties. Most were green — ready for visitors to chop down and haul home. But occasionally Beck would pause to point out a drought victim.

“These needles should be about an inch-and-a-quarter to an inch-and-a-half long,” Beck said handling the brittle limbs of a Douglas Fir. “As you can see they’re barely three-quarters-of-an-inch long, that’s the primary affect of the drought.”

Beck pointed to another tree — the needles on the southern side of its frame were rust-colored and easily flaked off as he tugged the branch.

“Some might actually get sunburned,” Beck said. “That’s an affect of the sun being so hot and the tree not being able to pull enough moisture out of the soil to keep things cool.”

He pointed to a tiny dead tree no more than a foot tall.

“I think 99 percent of everything we planted last year died,” Beck said. “It’s painful to see these trees suffering obviously.”

Beck said the more susceptible trees were growing at half the rate of normal, which was causing a financial impact. He said he planned to hang signs on the drought-stricken trees to let customers know they weren’t for sale. Despite those issues he said his hillsides were covered with enough healthy trees to satisfy holiday tree hunters who swarm to his wooded property after Thanksgiving every year to sip on hot apple cider and snatch up wreaths and ornamental reindeer made of logs.

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Beck said in addition to his own stock, he regularly imports Christmas trees mainly from Oregon, as well as prized silvertip firs which grow in the Sierras. But Beck said the drought has hit the silvertips especially hard, causing a shortage across the industry.

“Actually we’re not selling silvertips this year for that reason,” he said.

In the town of Burlingame, Christmas tree seller Thomas Harman said his business was actually benefiting from the drought. That’s because his trees are artificial -- manufactured by his Redwood City-based company Balsam Hill, which sells realistic-looking trees.

“Thirty-one percent of Californians that Nielsen surveyed in October are planning to change their Christmas tree habit this year because of the drought,” Harman said. “That’s a shocking number to me.”

Harman bounded through the artificial forest in his Burlingame outlet store showing off the genuine looking needles on the trees which he designed himself by venturing into nature and clipping samples to create molds. He ticked off the benefits of an artificial tree over its genuine counterpart.

“You get the tree that looks real,” he said, “doesn’t shed its needles, doesn’t need to be watered.”

He demonstrated another advantage over nature’s trees by picking up a remote control and flicking through various lighting configurations that are pre-installed on his trees.

“I like when you’re watching a movie,” Harman said, “a Christmas movie and you put on the multi-lights.

Back on his Los Gatos tree farm, Beck moved easily among his trees — soaking up the quiet mountain air filled with the scent of wafting pine. A former Silicon Valley engineer, he retreated from the asphalt paved world to open Patchen 46 years ago. Now he was looking forward to the start of the holidays, when the joyful chaos of holiday revelers would once again join him in his woods.

“Folks will come here typically the day after Thanksgiving,” Beck said, “we give them a saw and they find the perfect tree.”

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