SALEM, Ore. - November has just arrived, but Oregon Christmas trees are already on their way to such destinations as Asia, Hawaii, and Mexico. In the next several weeks, Oregon – the nation’s leading producer of Christmas trees – will ship trees to most U.S. states and many countries around the world.
It’s a frenzied time of year for growers and Oregon Department of Agriculture inspectors who certify the trees as pest- and disease-free.
“It gets real hectic over the next month and there can always be weather issues, but the job is great for me,” says ODA inspector Christy Brown, whose territory this year includes portions of Clackamas County. “I love seeing Oregon and meeting people I wouldn’t ordinarily meet.”
With as much as 90 percent of Oregon’s 383 licensed Christmas tree growers shipping out of state, ODA inspectors will be working seven days a week until early to mid-December, when harvest and shipping finally ends.
There is also tremendous value placed by the industry on the role of ODA Christmas tree inspectors. So many trees need to be checked and determined free of pests and diseases in such a short time frame. Those trees don’t move across Oregon’s borders without the all-important piece of paper that indicates they have been inspected and cleared by ODA.
“Our inspection is very important to the Christmas tree industry,” says Brown. “We are the gatekeepers for a lot the trade that goes on. The phytosanitary certificate is an international standard for paperwork that follows these trees to their destination. If you want to ship trees to other countries and other states, you need somebody like us– government officials who do third-party inspection.”
Inspection takes place in the field before harvest and again just prior to shipment. Inspectors don’t look at every tree, but randomly walk through a representative part of the field looking for potential problems.
They also check after trees are cut and growers use a mechanical shaker to get rid of any pests that might be present right before those trees go into a container.
The process has been largely successful in preventing problems. Failure at this end can mean trouble at the export destination and a financial headache for the grower or shipper if those trees are rejected.
Exports of Christmas trees remain important to the state’s economy, and ODA is essential to those exports as inspectors check to make sure trees bound for other states and countries don’t carry unwanted pests or diseases. Phytosanitary certificates signed by the inspector give the trees a clean bill of health and clear the way for shipment. Inspecting and issuing certificates will be a daily chore over the next few weeks.
Whenever growers request an inspection, no matter date, time, location, or weather conditions, the ODA inspector responds as soon as possible.
Many of the trees currently being inspected and readied for shipment will end up in overseas retail stores, on display by Thanksgiving. Some trees head for US military bases around the globe. Export shipments inspected and cleared by ODA last year included 28 to Singapore, 23 to Hong Kong, 14 to Canada, 7 to Japan, 4 to the United Arab Emirates, 3 to the Philippines, 2 to Vietnam, and 1 each to China, Korea, and Palau. But Mexico continues to be responsible for 95 percent of the exported Christmas trees from Oregon, last year with 1,675 shipments.
The movement of Oregon Christmas trees to export markets is more complicated this year because of the presence of Douglas-fir twig weevil. Mexico has a zero tolerance for the insect. Under an agreed-upon protocol, ODA will not certify trees from fields in which more than one live Douglas-fir twig weevil has been found during a 30-minute inspection period. This protocol allows ODA to certify Christmas trees during this unusual year of weevil activity while still meeting Mexico’s requirements.
A lot of what Brown and other inspectors are doing right now is cutting a twig from a cross-section of trees in the field, peeling back the bark, and visually looking for the weevil.
“Other than the Douglas-fir twig weevil, the export market and our job really hasn’t changed too much from a regulatory point of view,” says Brown.
In the past, some growers who ship to Mexico might simply send Noble firs instead of Douglas firs, thereby avoiding the specific pest in the first place. But a shortage of Noble firs – and Christmas trees in general – has resulted in more Douglas firs heading south, as long as they are weevil-free.
The tree shortage this year will result in higher prices. Harvest of Christmas trees can take anywhere from 7 to 10 years after planting. The cyclical supply and demand impact has led to fewer trees being planted in recent years after a previous oversupply of trees.
The latest Oregon Christmas tree survey conducted by the US Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) captured 2015 data. Over a five year period, the number of trees cut and sold was down 26 percent, at 4.7 million trees. The amount of acreage growing Christmas trees dropped 28 percent, at 41,223 acres compared to 2010 data. All indications are that the trend of fewer trees being harvested continues.
That probably means fewer trees heading to export markets this year. Still, ODA inspectors remain busy. It isn’t always about exports or even trees headed to Oregon’s top overall customer, neighboring California. Inspectors also look at Christmas trees that never leave the state.
Growers often request the expertise of ODA to identify problems in the field, even though there is no requirement for certification of trees that remain in Oregon. It’s just another way of maintaining the good reputation of high-quality Oregon Christmas trees.
"Oregon Christmas tree growers are known for shipping high quality, pest and disease-free trees," says Gary McAninch, who manages ODA’s Nursery and Christmas Tree programs and supervises the team of inspectors. "Our inspection and certification is part of the equation that maintains that reputation."