The question of whether it is environmentally correct to buy a real Christmas tree has been asked repeatedly in recent years, and an expert in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences wants to lay it to rest permanently.
The answer, according to Ricky Bates, associate professor of ornamental horticulture, is an emphatic, “Yes!”
“It’s a silly debate — you can breathe easier knowing Christmas trees are being grown,” said Bates, whose research deals with problems faced by the nursery and Christmas-tree industries. He conducts research and extension education programs aimed at improving the profitability of these businesses.
“Christmas trees in the United States provide the daily oxygen requirements for millions of people.”
And if better breathing is not enough, people can rest easier knowing that real trees are a renewable resource. “Approximately 34 million trees are sold every year, and more than enough seedlings are planted to replace them,” he said. “A million acres nationally are in Christmas tree production.
“In the final analysis, Christmas-tree farms benefit the environment in a number of important and diverse ways. Reducing soil erosion, creating habitat for wildlife and sequestering carbon are just a few practical benefits realized via tree farming.”
When a Christmas-tree seedling is planted on a farm, it usually is already three or four years old. Depending upon the species, it may take another seven to 10 years to produce a marketable tree.
Some people contend that producing real trees doesn’t require burning fossil fuels, as do artificial trees, but it is not that simple, according to Bates. “Actually, the environmental impact of producing Christmas trees or any other agricultural commodity is more complicated than it may appear, and the question needs to be considered in the context of overall benefits and costs,” he said.
“For example, fossil fuels are consumed by equipment to produce trees on farms, but these same trees also sequester carbon over their lifespan.”
Finally, buying a real tree every year is good for the economy. Bates estimates that there are more than 15,000 Christmas-tree growers in the United States. The industry employs approximately 100,000 people. The total Christmas-tree crop recently was valued at more than $360 million.