Though the summer heat is gone, effects from the severe drought are still being felt into the Christmas season at area Christmas tree farms.

The Missourian spoke with the owners of Heritage Valley Christmas tree farm, located off Four Mile Road near Washington, and Pea Ridge Forest, a Christmas tree farm at Hermann, about the effects of the drought on their farms.

Heritage Valley is home to 30 acres and 10,000 to 12,000 Christmas trees, as well as pecan and other trees on the remaining 50 acres of farmland. The tree farm sells Canaan fir, white pine and Norway spruce trees for Christmas.

Pea Ridge Forest has 80 acres of Christmas trees. Like Heritage Valley, Pea Ridge Forest sells Canaan fir and white pine trees. It also grows Scotch pine and grows and sells deciduous trees. It has three different farms to grow the trees, but sells from one home location.

Both farms import cut Fraser fir trees, which don’t grow in Missouri.

“This was the most severe drought I’ve ever seen,” said Vernon Spaunhorst, who has owned Heritage Valley Tree Farm with his wife, Bethine “Bee” Spaunhorst for 30 years.

“It was a combination of the drought starting so early and the heat with it. It’s more severe than anything I’ve ever seen.”

Spaunhorst noted that droughts usually begin in July or August, but this year, the drought began in June.

The tremendous heat and lack of water combined was where the problems began, agreed Mary Rood, who owns Pea Ridge Forest with her husband, LeRoy, and sons, Scott and Michael.

“We were hit with a double whammy,” Rood said, noting that there were more than 12 days with temperatures over 100 degrees.

“Tree roots would get too warm, then irrigation would cause the roots to get too wet,” she said. “Growing Christmas trees isn’t a real easy matter, but this year was an exceptional challenge.”

The lack of rain and heat caused some of the trees to die and others to turn brown on one side at Spaunhorsts’ farm. Additionally, trees aren’t as large as usual.

Rood said she didn’t notice a difference in growth patterns.

Of the approximately 900 Canaan fir trees the Spaunhorsts were going to sell, about 200 of them were burnt on one side and couldn’t be sold.

“Keeping the trees alive this year was a real struggle,” Rood said

In 40 years of growing evergreens, Rood said there has never been a time that evergreens had to be irrigated. This year, however, 10 miles of drip irrigation tape was laid throughout the farm for the evergreen trees.

“By the time we decided this was serious, we had lost some of the one-year-old trees,” Rood said, noting that a “tremendous” amount of young trees didn’t survive the drought.

Rood estimated that 75 percent of 1-year-old trees were lost.  

Rood said her family was able to save many of the 2- to 4-year-old trees, though the Norway spruce trees dried out more quickly. Larger trees fared well, she said, noting that very few salable trees were damaged.

Because fungus is worse when it’s wet, Scotch pines, which are typically disease prone, look exceptionally well, “if they escaped dying from the drought.”

“That was one good thing that came from the dryness,” Rood said.

Future Shortage

Because trees are sold in about their sixth to seventh year, and because so many young trees were damaged, some tree farms guessed that they would have a shortage of trees in about six years.

Spaunhorst said his shortage should only be this year and next because he waters his seedlings. In the future, he plans to have irrigation set up for all fir trees. If the year starts out hot and dry, trees can be watered right away.

Rood said she hopes not to have a shortage in six to seven years either.

To help make up for lost trees, the Roods planted more Christmas trees in the fall and will continue to plant extra trees to “play catchup.”

Offset Cost

To help offset the cost of laying irrigation, the Roods were forced to increase tree prices by 50 cents per foot on pine trees.

The Spaunhorsts did not raise prices this year.

“We’ve had an awful lot of good years,” Spaunhorst said. “You have to take the good with the bad, and we enjoy people coming out and having a good time.”

One positive note, owners from both farms agreed that families looking for live Christmas trees should not have a problem finding their perfect Christmas tree.

Spaunhorst stressed that while there are fewer trees this year, there are still many nice trees on the farm.