The Ottumwa Courier

November 29, 2012

Christmas trees getting Grinched this season

Three area tree farms shut down; farmers struggle with disease, drought

Courier Staff Writer

FAIRFIELD — Christmas trees may be leaning more toward the pitiful state of Charlie Brown’s tree this winter due to disease and the effects of this summer’s drought.

Barbara Kistler, who owns Kistler Tree Farm in Fairfield with her husband, Robert, said their trees are worsening due to disease and drought.

Disease has turned some of their trees’ needles brown and then the trees have died, she said, which began three to four years ago when Iowa saw wet winters. Their farm generally sells between 50 and 75 trees a year.

“But we’ve planted over 2,000 plugs in the last three years and they’re all dead,” she said. “And considering it takes seven to eight years for a tree to get up to ‘sellable’ size, I don’t know how we’re going to have trees in seven to eight years.”

So the Kistlers keep planting new plugs and cutting out infected trees when they have time.

This year, the Kistlers have received a lot of calls from the Ottumwa and Oskaloosa areas, due to the closings of Scotch Hill Christmas Trees in Oskaloosa, Woten Tree Farms in Ottumwa and Clearview Tree Farm in Bloomfield.

“Unfortunately we will not be open for the 2012 season,” a message on Scotch Hill’s answering machine said. “Hopefully we will be open in 2013.”

Woten’s Tree Farm went out of business last year after needle cast arrived, killing all of their Scots pines.

“It’s kind of like how tomatoes get blight,” said Karen Woten. “It stays in the ground and you’re not supposed to plant Scots pines back in the same spot more than once or twice. And when you only have 10 acres or so, you have to plant them in the same spot.”

The Wotens started planting their farm in 1990. Out of the approximately 2,200 trees they had, between 1,500 and 2,000 had to be cut down due to disease — “and there’s nothing you can do.”

“Any kind of farming doesn’t always go the way you plan,” Woten said. “We lost quite a few of the fir trees we had. A lot of those died because of the drought.

“You can’t stop it. There’s nothing you can spray, nothing you can do. You can try, but most of the time it doesn’t work.”

Kistler said she’s had to be honest with callers and tell them that some of the trees probably won’t be picture perfect.

“I’ve told them that we’ve had a bad few years, so the trees may not be up to par as we would like them to be,” Kistler said. “I try to shear them every single year, but this year was very hot, and we did our best. The trees are natural. We don’t have a professional machine that goes over the tree and cuts off whatever sticks out. They’re all hand-sheared.”

In this area, people are likely to find Scots pines or white pines, Woten said.

“A lot of people like Scots pine and those are the ones that were hit real bad,” she said. “The white pine doesn’t get that disease. We still had some white but we just had those for our family. They take a little bit longer to grow.”

Woten said some have tried planting balsam firs and other trees from farther north, but those trees don’t do well in dry and hot conditions like Iowa saw this summer.

“I hate to see that tradition stop,” she said. “We saw kids grow up here. They would come out, ride the hay rides ... it was a family tradition. Now it’s sad to see them go other places. Some people just don’t want to go that far and get one at the store.”

Marilynn Faber, owner of Soap Creek Tree Farm in Moravia with her husband, Irvin, said they have reduced numbers of trees this year, though they’ve worked with another farmer to bring more in.

“I think trees have been stressed the last couple of years,” Faber said. “But customers have been coming here so many years, we wanted to keep it open if we could.”

Faber said her four daughters banded together this season to help out on the farm.

“We’re planting new trees every spring,” she said. “This last year a lot of watering took place to keep them alive. But two years of fresh planting were lost because of the weather. We’re trying. We’re trying to keep this farm going.”