Michigan growers push authentic Christmas trees

December 14, 2009
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LANSING — One way to “go green” may be to get a real Christmas tree this year.

There is debate nationally over whether artificial or natural trees are better for the environment, but some experts say that real trees are always the answer in Michigan.

“In terms of carbon balance, using real trees would be more environmentally friendly,” said Alan Rebertus, a biology professor at Northern Michigan University.

He said in terms of carbon dioxide, real Christmas trees have a small but positive effect on the environment because they’re often planted in pastures, and filter air for the eight to 10 years they take to mature.

Eighty percent of fake trees, on the other hand, are shipped from China, where they’re made from non-biodegradable plastic, according to the National Christmas Tree Association. An independent Canadian study found a fake tree must be used for 20 years to make it environmentally equivalent to having a real tree each of the same years.

Marsha Gray is the executive director of the Howell-based Michigan Christmas Tree Association, which has 200 member tree farms. She says the stigma associated with cutting down trees shouldn’t apply when tree-shopping.

“Christmas trees are a crop. We plant the crop, we raise the crop, and we harvest and replant it.”

According to the national association, Michigan harvested 1.6 million trees in 2007, making it the third-biggest tree-producing state.

“Michigan will export about two-thirds to three-fourths of the trees we produce,” said Grey. She said Midwestern cities like Chicago are big markets, but that Michigan trees make it as far south as Texas.

For Michigan residents, Christmas trees are a local crop with low environmental impact. There’s very little fossil fuel used in maintaining Christmas tree farms, said Rebertus. He said many farms use little fertilizer and prune their trees by hand. Environmentally, it would be nice to see more native species grown, he added.

“One thing I would recommend is the use of more natives, like balsam fir, white spruce and black spruce,” said Rebertus.

Vormittag Tree Farm just west of Grand Rapids sells native balsam fir in addition to non-native crowd-pleasers like blue spruce and Fraser fir. The choose-and-pick operation has been family-owned and operated for nearly 50 years.

“We’re not the biggest farm, but we do pretty good business,” said owner John Vormittag.

The trees cover 30 acres of the 60-acre farm, and Vormittag says many of his customers know that real trees are better than artificial ones. “I believe they’re buying the Michigan-grown Christmas trees because they are supporting a Michigan grower and it’s good for the environment,” said Vormittag.

His 8-foot trees sell for about $35. A comparable-sized artificial tree can run upwards of $100. But according to Vormittag, a special part of buying a real tree is the experience.

“Everyone comes out with their camera and family and dogs — it’s really a tradition,” said Vormittag.

According to Gray, the major incentive for buying a real tree isn’t the environmental benefits.

“The No. 1 reason people select a natural tree is for the fragrance. You just can’t get that with an artificial product,” she said.

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