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Tree tradition rich in Minnesota

December 23, 2010
By Jenny Kirk

For 500 years, people have been celebrating the tradition of tree decorating for the holidays. In the beginning, trees were cut from random forests, but now, only a small percentage of Christmas trees are harvested from the wild. Most come from tree farms, and of the 25 million to 30 million Christmas trees sold in the United States each year, 500,000 are marketed in Minnesota.

According to the 2007 USDA Census of Agriculture, Minnesota ranks eighth overall in total tree acreage and 10th in trees harvested.

Oregon, North Carolina and Michigan are the top three producers in the U.S.

"It's a crop, like corn and soybeans," said Ron Iverson, who owns Iverson Tree Farm - one of only three tree farms located in southwest Minnesota. "It's a fun hobby. There are a lot of good benefits for the environment, too."

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture reports that real Christmas trees - which take about 8-12 years to mature to market height - are truly a renewable crop because for every tree harvested, between one to three seedlings are planted in its place.

Guggisberg Tree Farm, just outside of New Ulm, and Hacker Tree Farm and Nursery, near Sleepy Eye, have similar businesses.

"It takes a lot of patience and perseverance because with most crops that are planted, you harvest them the same year," Iverson said. "But for Christmas trees, it's a long-term crop."

Iverson is in his 20th year of business. He began planting his tree crop in 1984, and had his first actual sales in 1990.

"It takes a lot of dedication," Iverson said. "You have to keep up with weed control, insect control, and you have to fertilize and shear once a year. Then, once you get into the rotation, you have to keep it going. What I planted this year will be ready in 10 years, so you have to have different sections."

A good number of businesses in Minnesota - including Country Side Nursery in Lake Benton and Greenwood Nursery in Marshall and Tracy - sell trees that are shipped in from different parts of North America.

"I've been selling Christmas trees for the past 30 years," said Jeff Farber, owner of Greenwood Nursery. "There are a lot of Christmas tree growers that can grow them on poorer land than around here (where the soil is crop-land rich). Most of ours are from Minnesota, Nova Scotia and North Carolina."

Iverson Tree Farm near Belview is located in the Minnesota River Valley.

"Most people don't realize the uniqueness of the valley," Iverson said. "Most tree farms are planted on marginal farm land. My farm is ideally suited for growing conifers, while most of the Christmas tree farms are in boreal forests."

The Balsam Fir, Fraser Fir and Scotch Pine are the most popular Christmas tree types grown in Minnesota, but the Norway Pine, White Pine, Blue Spruce, Colorado Spruce and the White Spruce are also available.

"We offer eight different species which are marked in separate sections," Iverson said. "It's very easy for people of all ages to drive in to the field. Nationwide, the Fraser Fir is very popular. It's not native to Minnesota, but I'm growing it very successfully."

Real Christmas trees are biodegradable and won't pile up in landfills. They also provide shelter for small animals and birds in addition to reducing carbon footprints or greenhouse gas, which, according to the National Christmas Tree Association, includes carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. Trees use the carbon to grow and release oxygen in the process. Young trees actually convert carbon dioxide into carbohydrates and oxygen at a faster rate than old trees.

"Trees are a huge carbon pollution element," Iverson said. "The amount of carbon that one acre of trees takes out of the environment is enough for 14 people."

Iverson said aphids are always a problem in August. Most growers can attack the issue with Asian lady beetles or some kind of insecticide. "I have a couple of sections that are natural and have no chemicals," Iverson said. "We're also trying some organic things."

Mother Nature can also create havoc. One year, a cold snap in May killed the new growth on Iverson's trees. Deer can also be a pest, preferring to eat the Scotch Pine over the spruce ones.



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