Thursday, December 17, 2009

Riding The New Mexico Rail Runner With an Expert

I’m not often jealous of an inanimate object. But I have never had a helicopter ride and our Christmas tree has. It wasn’t a long flight - only about a minute. This was just enough time to lift 30 to 40 other trees and transport them to a warehouse for shipping. I was talking to Erin Fletk, an owner of Emerald Christmas Tree Company in Bellevue, Washington, who assured me that transportation by helicopter keeps trees fresher by cutting the time needed to move them out of the field.

Fletk’s company has been supplying trees to the Kroger grocery chain from Oregon land for over 50 years. The trees are hand tagged in August, cut in November and early December, flown to the warehouse, sprayed with chipped ice, placed in a refrigerated truck and transported to the stores. That’s a lot of traveling for such a young tree. Kroger’s trees come from the upper Michigan peninsula or Oregon. Home Depot also buys trees from Michigan and Oregon as well as North Carolina and Canada.. The time period from harvest to store varied from 12 hours to 7 days, depending on the destination.

In these days of carbon footprints, the question is whether the growing and transportation of our tree is an ecologically smart one, especially compared to artificial trees. And that is when I waded into the sometimes sharp discussion of real vs. not real trees.

The first issue in the debate is what to call “not real” trees. The Christmas tree industry uses the word “fake” while the artificial tree industry doesn’t call them anything at all. I looked at some artificial trees at Wal-Mart and Home Depot. There was no mention of the fact that these trees were made of plastic. On the tree and the boxes they were simply named for the tree that they resembled - such as 7 ft. Douglas Fir or Yonkers Pine. The boxes did state clearly they were MADE IN CHINA.

As an aside, the first artificial tree was developed by the Addis Brush Company. In 1950, they patented the Addis Silver pine tree, designed to revolve with lights under it. While we never had that tree growing up, many of my friends’ families bought it. And upon reflection, it did look a lot like a silver brush.

The real tree people have some pretty strong ammunition in support of Christmas tree farms. The first is that natural trees are MADE IN AMERICA. Many American farmers are supported by this industry. There are 176 members of just the Michigan Christmas Tree Association, translating into thousands nationwide. And, according to Erin Fletk, three trees are planted for every tree harvested from a farm so that no trees are taken down in any of our national parks or forests. The numbers on the other side are startling - 85 % of artificial Christmas trees are from China. . This argument hits close to home. Paris had its own Christmas tree factory (Paris Industries) for several years but it closed when the competition from China became too stiff. Obviously, Asian artificial trees travel even further to arrive in our local stores.

The disposition of the trees are starkly different. Natural trees are biodegradable and can be placed in lakes for fish habitat. They are recyclable and used to prevent beach erosion and for mulch. Our Christmas tree will be mulched by the big horizontal grinder owned by the City of Paris and made available to nurseries, schools, and residents. Artificial trees don’t disintegrate well. Some come with a PVC warning and in California, a lead warning. So, they hang out in our waste disposal site for many, many years.

According to Ms. Fletk, the movement is back towards natural Christmas trees. Their numbers are up even in these tough economic times. The Kroger chain also is selling more and at a lower price than last year. Home Depot couldn’t release numbers but would tell me they are the world’s largest retailer of Christmas trees. That’s a lot of tree movement and traveling. Our tree traveled by helicopter and truck over 3000 miles to Paris just to light up our home. What I particularly like is that this Oregon tree will soon become mulch for a Texas garden - certainly worth the trip.

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