Free-range, organic Christmas trees?


Everything is going green these days and holiday decorations are no exception. This year the Minnesota Christmas Tree Association is touting the slogan, “Go Green, Get Real” – meaning that choosing a real tree over a plastic one is more earth friendly. One small shop in South Minneapolis is taking it to a whole new level. The Urban Earth Co-op, a struggling flower and garden shop at West 36th Street and Bryant Avenue South is offering “organic, free-range” trees. 

The free-range trees are balsam firs that were cut during two trips to the northern Minnesota, Pine Island land of co-op board member and author Jeff Forester. On the first trip, Forester and his wife Allison removed about 70 trees. They took out about 130 more on the second trip with the help of co-op employee Zeb Millett.


Fire and the Forest

Jeff Forester is an Urban Earth board member and the author of Forest for the Trees: How Humans Shaped the Northwoods, a book published by the Minnesota Historical Society. Forester provided some background information about fires in the Boundary Waters area, and how he manages land on Pine Island that once belonged to his great grandfather.

Historically, fires burnt through every acre of the Boundary Waters area about once every 30 years. These meandering fires eliminated dead wood and cleared underbrush making room for animals and biodiversity. Forester said at the time, the regular fuel load, or amount of stuff that would burn in a fire was two tons to five tons per acre. With the increase in fire fighting efficiency throughout the years, the fuel load in the area is now 10-12 tons per acre. This means that fire in those areas can burn 10 times hotter and more intensely than the historical fires.

Trees that propagate, or reproduce, with the help of fire, like the balsam fir, are designed to burn easily.  When a fire does happen, they act as a ladder for the flames, carrying them up to the forest crown. That kind of fire kills the red and white pines that would otherwise survive for hundreds of years, as they did before logging in the area clear cut the old growth stands.

Forester and others with similar stands of land, like polar explorer Will Steger, remove some of the young balsam firs that are growing up around red or white pine trees. This mimics the effect that a good fire would have on the area, and decreases the chance that an accidental fire would devastate it.

They leave the young pines in order to foster diversity in the ages of the trees. They hope to prevent catastrophes like the “blowdown” that happened in July 1999. One contributing factor was that the similar age of many trees in the area made them equally affected by severe weather conditions. In some spots almost nothing mature survived, and the fuel load now exceeds 100 tons per acre.

Forester said that Steger had been burning the trees he removed from the hundreds of acres of land he owns, but last year one of his permitted fires was extinguished by the fire service with a tanker plane. By selling the trees he removes for Christmas, Forester is hoping to create a new holiday tradition that could spread throughout the region.

Millett admitted, “It wasn’t easy. Five days of camping, carrying them like a half mile in the woods, then we had to bind them with this hemp twine, one by one, and then we loaded them onto a pontoon boat,” for the trip back, across Lake Vermillion, to shore and a waiting trailer. After several cutting trips through the woods, all the trees were loaded in a U-haul and brought to the co-op for sale.

“We cut down any balsam firs that we saw growing around white pine trees,” Millett explained, “the idea is that if a fire were to sweep through, [balsam firs] would act as kindling, catch, and then bring the flame up to the crowns, and that’s what would bring down the white pines.”  Forester said that clearing out the underbrush is part of managing woodland. Successful efforts to prevent or put out wild fires means forests build up incredible fuel loads, making contemporary fires exponentially more powerful, hot and destructive than they were historically.

Christina Cassano, Urban Earth’s store manager, said that about 50 of the trees were pre-ordered, but there are plenty more for sale, from $20 to $50. Because they grew in the wild, instead of being shaped like many farm raised trees, some of Urban Earth’s offerings are round and full, some have branches that are more spread out and others are real-life Charlie Brown Christmas trees. According to Jan Donelson of the Minnesota Christmas Tree Association, balsam firs have a blue-green hue, good needle retention and are the most aromatic of trees commonly used for decoration. “It’s the smell everybody associates with Christmas,” she said.

Donelson explained that it’s hard to get people to understand the value of a good Christmas tree. She asks people to consider the $60 they might spend on a dozen roses, and then asks them to think about the 10-12 years she puts into the trees she grows in Clear Lake, for the same amount of money. She said that each year her trees get touched by about 15 different processes, bringing jobs, especially for young people, to rural areas where they are traditionally scarce. Ultimately, she takes in about five dollars a year per tree when it’s harvested and sold.

The Urban Earth Co-op is hoping that people will appreciate the time and effort that went into harvesting their trees too. Forester said his wild trees are another option from ones that are farmed; where cleared land is planted with Christmas trees that get shaped and are often, but not always, sprayed with herbicides, pesticides, green paint and preservatives before people take them home.