Photo: The Canadian Press
A plot of land on the Sahtlam Tree Farm in the Cowichan Valley region of Duncan, British Columbia
The effects of climate change are wreaking havoc on Christmas tree farms in British Columbia and beyond, with a forestry expert saying the already shrinking and changing sector will need to adapt in years to come.
Trees take eight to 12 years to grow to the size most people seek, and young seedlings are particularly vulnerable to climate hazards, said Richard Hamelin, head of the department of forest conservation science at the University of British Columbia.
Much of the province has experienced prolonged drought and extreme heat over the past two summers, and seedlings have shallow root systems that don’t extend beyond very dry soil layers near the surface, Hamelin said.
Those same shallow roots meant that strips of seedlings were inundated or washed away during extensive floods fed by so-called atmospheric rivers of rain in southwestern British Columbia in November 2021, Hamelin said in a interview.
Additionally, moist, cool soils increase the risk of root diseases, he noted.
During this time, older trees may survive but lose their needles or turn brown due to extreme heat and drought, he added.
Severe atmospheric rivers last fall and the so-called heat dome of 2021 that saw Lytton, British Columbia break the all-time record for the highest daily temperature on record in Canada have both been linked to the effects of climate change.
Although Quebec, Ontario and Nova Scotia lead the country in Christmas tree production, Hamelin said he expects successive extreme weather events in British Columbia to contribute to a continuing shortage for years to come.
Climate change is also causing warmer weather overall, fueling pest activity that can infest trees already weakened by drought or disease, he said.
“Just like humans, when we’re stressed or when we’re more tired, we’re more susceptible to disease,” Hamelin said. “Well, trees are the same way. So all that extra stress from all that heat and flooding makes the trees more susceptible to pests and pathogens.”
Climate change is not the only factor challenging farmers and threatening Canada’s stock of real Christmas trees, which has been declining for several years.
As trees take about a decade to reach the desired size, the closure of logging operations in Canada and the United States during the 2008 recession is now being felt.
Closures have continued, with Statistics Canada data showing that the total area of Christmas tree farms has shrunk by nearly 20,000 acres between 2011 and 2021.
Shirley Brennan, executive director of the Canadian Christmas Tree Association, said the average age of an arborist is between 65 and 85 and younger generations are not entering the industry as farmers longtimers are retiring.
However, there is a “light at the end of the tunnel” that comes in the form of agritourism, Brennan said in a recent interview.
Rather than opening for just six weeks in the winter, farms can consider diversifying their operations to grow crops like lavender, host activities like yoga retreats, or incorporate pumpkin picking as the own has done. Brennan Farm, she said.
The high cost of land and competition with crops that bring in income faster than festive trees may be a inhibiting factor for the sector in British Columbia, Hamelin noted.
Hamelin pointed out a few additional options that could help Christmas tree growers resist the effects of global warming, including genetically selecting and breeding the strongest trees among classic Canadian species, or importing different species of fir trees from regions of the world where they are best adapted. in stifling heat.
The Christmas tree planting approach is also “completely unnatural”, leaving seedlings and young trees exposed to the sun, he said.
Christmas tree growers might consider letting some trees grow or planting seedlings in areas where more mature trees could provide shade, he said.
“I think there are solutions, we just need to scratch our heads and realize things are different, and going forward we just need to change the way we do things,” Hamelin said. .
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