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Local tree growers resist rot

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A fungus is plaguing the Fraser fir Christmas tree industry, but an Extension agent says our mountains offer protection.

By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

INDEPENDENCE — The elevations and steep slopes of Grayson County, Virginia’s most fertile ground for Christmas tree growing, provides local farmers with a “competitive advantage” over other places in the United States, according to information from the Virginia Cooperative Extension.
While a recent Associated Press article makes it sound like growers from coast to coast have been struggling with damage to their Fraser firs caused by a fungus, farmers in Grayson County plant carefully to avoid the root rot it causes, according to Extension Agent Kevin Spurlin.
Fraser firs like cooler temperatures and higher elevations.

At 3,178 acres, the fertile fields of Grayson County produce the greatest number of Christmas trees in Virginia, more than four times the amount of the next closest county, Floyd, at 718 acres, according to 2007 data.
Carroll County places fifth on that list with 422 acres planted in Christmas trees.
The group of products that includes the trees and other forest products brought in nearly $7 million to farmers in 2007, according to the data.
Oregon harvested seven million Christmas trees in 2007, according to the AP article. North Carolina had 3.1 million that same year.
The AP article quotes a producer in Bakersville, N.C., who had suffered a die back in the tree species from a fungus found in the soil called Phytophthora.
The writer also noted that the fungus has caused growers in Oregon, the number one supplier of commercially grown Christmas trees, to experiment with imported species in order to get around the effects of Phytophthora.
So, if the fungus is a problem with growers nationwide, is it affecting the Christmas tree industry in Virginia, the 12th largest producer of the holiday commodity?

Given the difficulties experienced by the growers in the AP article, The Gazette asked Spurlin whether the local tree growers face the same issues.
Farmers and agricultural officials are well acquainted with Phytophthora, the Extension agent answered. They plan and plant their farms in order keep their trees’ roots away from the native and naturally occurring fungus.
“It’s probably one of the major root problems that affects Fraser firs,” Spurlin said. “It impacts where they plant the trees. Site selection and elevation all play into minimizing the problems. That’s where we have a competitive advantage in the Twin Counties.”
Simply put, the fungus is less vigorous above 2,500 feet. So, the Blue Ridge geography benefits the Twin County growers.
A lot of tree farms cluster around the peak of Whitetop mountain, standing at 5,520 feet.
“These mountains are hard on the fungus,” as Spurlin put it.
Growers also know that Fraser firs do best on well-drained spots, another point in favor of the mountain slopes and upland sites.
Occasionally, farmers will push the limits of their land and plant a few extra rows at the bottom of a slope and hope they can get away with it, Spurlin said. “They probably took a chance expecting they could lose those trees.”
Generally, though, the growers will work around these potential trouble spots.
“The first consideration in establishing a Christmas tree farm is site selection,” one Virginia Cooperative Extension document advises. “Christmas trees should not be planted on poorly drained soils.
“It is strongly recommended that growers contact their local Virginia Department of Forestry (DOF) or Soil Conservation Service (SCS) office for free advice on site considerations.”

It’s true that once Phytophthora gets in the soil, the fungus will remain there, Spurlin said. By the time Fraser firs show symptoms of the root rot, they’re past saving.
And the Extension agent also confirmed that the fungus can spread though touching tree roots. That’s why producers will tend to plant the trees in blocks.
Spurlin noted the spaces between those blocks will act as a buffer to stop the spread.
Phytophthora is not an introduced pest that will sweep across the United States, like the blight now infecting another Christmastime greenery staple, boxwoods. Phytophthora has always been present and plays a role in natural progression in forests.
Other kinds of Christmas trees, like white pine, are not as susceptible to the root rot caused by the fungus, so planting diverse fields can also benefit the grower.
This knowledge about Phytophthora can prevent farmers from falling victim to the fungus.
Spurlin compared it to preventing pneumonia in people — if producers stay away from planting in heavy clay, in wet places or down the slopes, the fungus can be avoided.
“That’s why they’re grown where they’re grown,” Spurlin said.