Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Christmas tree farmers enter 'ethical agriculture' realm with new sustainability certification

Shoppers at Whole Foods know which cucumbers are organic and which are locally grown. They can choose grass-fed beef and eggs with a variety of stamps that certify the chickens were treated well.
The choice of which tree to put up in the living room, though, usually stopped with the breed and size -- a six-foot Douglas fir or a nine-foot noble?
This year, customers can also buy a tree with the "Socially and Environmentally Responsible Farms" logo, which means it was grown according to sustainability qualifications. Oregon produces the most Christmas trees of any state, with about 6.1 million grown each year. More than half are sent across state lines, most to California, with a good chunk shipped to Southwest states, Hawaii and Mexico. In spite of the locavore, ethical food movement in the urban centers of the Northwest, Christmas trees – one of the last Oregon agricultural powerhouses -- moved around the country without rigorous disclaimers about gluten content or how it was raised.
Until now.
Betty Malone of Sunrise Tree Farm is shipping her SERF-certified trees from Philomath to Whole Foods stores across the region, enjoying access to new buyers now that her 70 acres of Christmas trees come with a conscience.
"We could see it being an advantage in the marketplace, but we're also getting a pat on the back for what we've been doing for decades, anyway," Malone said, taking a minute between filling large late-season orders.
Malone and most Christmas tree farmers struggle to qualify for organic certifications, but grow their trees with low pesticide use and experiment with ways to be better stewards of their farmland.
Some of those farmers wanted to legitimize their practices, hoping that customers will value the effort, and to influence more Christmas tree farmers to adopt the same practices.
"It this program is successful and recognized, others will see it and come up to that standard," farmer Terry Muilenburg said.
Muilenburg grew up on Green Valley Farms in Molalla, raising livestock and other products before switching to Christmas trees.
He always planted a strip of cover crop between the rows of grand, Douglas and noble firs and only sprayed pesticides close to the base of the tree to prevent mice from stripping the bark. The grass also makes a home for insects to live.
Eventually, Muilenburg wanted to differentiate his trees from tree farmers who spray the ground bare of grass. He hoped that an official program would influence more people in the industry to ensure their soil was well cared for and that erosion was kept in check.
Miulenburg was one of the first to earn his certificate. They invested in it -- the Oregon Department of Agriculture's inspection cost them about $400 to $500, plus the months it took to count and identify the insects that live on their crops and the bald eagles and Roosevelt elk that pass through their property.
The Muilenburgs haven't seen a sales spike because of the certification, but secured a few customers who wanted SERF-certified trees.
"As far as we're concerned, there's really no financial payoff," Muilenburg said. "But, if others step up to the plate, it's worth it."
Bob Schaefer, who runs the largest certified farm at 4,000 acres, echoed Muilenburg.
"I didn't expect to see any real benefits short term, but I think long term, farms that are certified sustainable will resonate with the consuming public," Schaefer said. "It's a long-term process, just like growing a Christmas tree."
Schaefer employs about 70 staff members year-round at Noble Mountain Tree Farm in Salem, and found that teaching them all to identify the soil and water protections required for certification also increased efficiency.
Noble Mountain displays the SERF logo prominently on its website and Schaefer appreciates when retailers print it on banners. It's a stamp of quality to the farmers who earned it.
"I think most farmers do everything right, but certification is about documentation," Schaefer said. "You can be doing things right, but to be certified you need to be documented."
However, increased sales would be the best incentive to convince other farmers the logo is worth the money and time Schaefer spent to certify their trees.
Kate Allen, who audits the Christmas tree farms for the Oregon Department of Agriculture to ensure they meet the SERF guidelines, confirmed that the farms are usually just a stack of paperwork away from the sustainability seal.
"Christmas trees are a long-lived perennial crop, so they have to be thinking about sustainability and they have to be thinking about the land and how it best supports their crop," Allen said.
But four farmers' efforts only go so far. The Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association doesn't have enough money to advertise the program heavily, said Executive Director Bryan Ostlund.
Ostlund said he expected more of a surge of interest in the four years since the program started, because of the growing demand to know where food comes from and how it's produced. But, the industry is handicapped in messaging.
"Whole foods advertises and markets themselves 12 months out of the year, so consumers have a long time to become aware of who they are and what they do," Ostlund said. "With Christmas trees, we are in and out of their view in the matter of a few weeks."
Still, Ostlund wanted the industry to be ahead of the curve, so he can tell customers who to buy a sustainable tree from when they call.
-- Molly Harbarger

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