As Dan McKinney scans the Fraser firs on his hillside farm in Mitchell County, he glimpses the future of North Carolina’s Christmas tree industry in a two-acre stand of young trees. The trees in the test plot run by NC State are growing at a faster clip than surrounding trees while boasting the same full look that have made Fraser fir a holiday must across the country in recent years. “What NC State is doing is the future of the industry,” says McKinney, president of the North Carolina Christmas Tree Association. “It’s going to allow us to produce a better tree and eventually grow them faster, which means more revenue.”
Despite their seasonal nature, Christmas trees have a $100 million annual economic impact in North Carolina, putting the state in second place nationally in the value of trees harvested for holiday buyers. As part of the only university-based research team nationwide dedicated to the study of Christmas trees, Drs. John Frampton and Eric Hinesley work hard to help the state maintain its competitive edge. “Technology offers us an opportunity to produce the best quality, fastest-growing trees to meet the market demand,” says Frampton, an associate professor in the Department of Forestry.
A tree geneticist whose wife has to choose the family Christmas tree because he is so picky, Frampton is creating improved versions of Fraser fir by grafting cuttings onto the roots of other types of fir trees or by cross-pollination. The modifications are designed to combat two threats to the trees: Phytophthora root rot and the balsam wooly adelgid. Root rot is caused by a soil-borne fungus that can take acres of land out of Christmas tree production for years since Fraser fir has no resistance to the disease. Tree farmers can spray to rid their plots of the adelgid, an aphid-like insect that sucks nutrients from trees, but doing so increases the use of pesticides and adds considerably to production costs.
In addition to his work on grafting, species trials, and selection of better quality, faster-growing trees, Hinesley focuses on customer service issues like shearing techniques that produce well-shaped Christmas trees and more effective preservation of trees after harvest. Good marketing is critical in helping North Carolina’s Christmas tree industry fend off growing competition from Northeast and Great Lakes states, where tree farmers are now planting Fraser firs because of their popularity and high profit margins. “With the research innovations and the effort NC State has put into agriculture and forestry extension services, North Carolina growers can create a premium brand for their trees,” says Hinesley, a professor in the Department of Horticultural Science. “That would help the state maintain its reputation as the industry standard for Fraser fir.”