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Iowa Christmas tree farmers fear future impact from drought

The sun peaks through the branches of pine trees.
Courtesy of T & S Christmas Tree Farm Facebook Page
Christmas Tree farms in northwest Iowa are struggling to get their saplings to take root.

Extreme drought in northwest Iowa is impacting farmers’ yields – including on Christmas tree farms.

The dry conditions that have ailed the area for around three years could mean an even tighter supply of the traditional holiday tree in the future. As northwest Iowa farmers struggle to get their Christmas saplings to take root, some are worried about fulfilling demand in the years ahead.

Last year’s lack of snow, combined with strong winds, hurt this season’s trees. It led to Justin Pritts’ Christmas tree farm, Country Pines, in Marcus losing 100 of its fully grown trees.

But, Pritts said he’s really worried about the number of saplings the farm has lost to drought. He said the farm lost around a third of the trees it planted this year.

“My big concern is going to be six or seven years down the road,” he said. “If these little ones don’t start taking off or we lose more over the wintertime, we’re going to be in trouble.”

Three people plant a Christmas tree at Country Pines farm in Marcus.
Courtesy of Country Pines
Country Pines in Marcus faced a tighter supply of Christmas tree farms this year. The owners are worried about how drought will impact the years ahead.

The National Christmas Tree Association estimates that around 25 million Christmas trees are harvested across the country each year. Iowa has over 100 families growing Christmas trees with an average farm size of three to eight acres, according to the Iowa Christmas Tree Association.

It takes around seven years for Christmas trees to mature, making the losses even harder for farms, Pritts said. This season, his four acre farm wasn’t as full as he hoped, and he said it could become even more sparse if the area continues with dry conditions.

“You’d put water on it and it's like it evaporated. It wouldn't even hardly go into the ground. So no matter what we tried to do, we just couldn't keep them,” Pritts said.

Robin Miller has seen much of the same at her Christmas tree farm in Hawarden in Sioux County.

“If these little ones don’t start taking off or we lose more over the wintertime, we’re going to be in trouble.”
Justin Pritts, owner of Country Pines

She said the survival rate of her trees has steadily decreased as the drought persists. Her 11 acre farm, T & S Christmas Tree Farm, usually loses around 25% of trees planted. But, now that number is up to 90%.

“Four years from now, I'm not going to have any of those trees,” Miller said. “And there’s really no way to make up that time.”

Miller said she’s especially worried about the supply of fir trees, which have taken the biggest hit. It’s one of the most popular tree types, she said. But, there’s a chance they will no longer be an option for customers if they continue without moisture.

“If we don't have snow days, or rain days, we never get a break from the sun,” she said. “So, especially the younger trees, they can't tolerate all that exposure.”

Kendall was Iowa Public Radio’s western Iowa reporter based in Sioux City, IA until Jan. 20, 2023.