Wildfires and drought are reducing Oregon’s Christmas tree harvest, and driving up prices.,

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A gnarly brown Christmas? Tree farms dry out in the Pacific Northwest.

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‘Burnt Down to Nothing’: Heatwave Dries Out Christmas Trees

The Bootleg Fire has burned thousands of acres in Oregon, and continues to ravage the state. Christmas tree farms have been hit hard, and the impact of the fire could be felt for several years.

The second day of the heat, it was 116. I came in the driveway that night and seen the trees were basically cooking, burnt down to nothing. It’ll affect us a lot. I mean, I’m a farmer 365 days a year. That’s how I make my income. So if I can’t sell Christmas trees, I really don’t put food on the table for my kids, and so it’s a tough deal. Nothing you can really do. I mean, just kind of got to roll with the punches, and replant next year and plant a few more. And hopefully make up for the loss that we’re going to have in the future — the eight, nine years from now when the trees were going to be mature. That’s — that’s when you really see the problem. Usually our weather’s pretty fair, you know, warm summers. Usually it’s 80 this time of year, 85 — and they can handle that, 90. But the big loss is usually in August, you know, September when it’s been dry and hot for a long time, but this year, with that heatwave, I mean, it just wiped them out.

The Bootleg Fire has burned thousands of acres in Oregon, and continues to ravage the state. Christmas tree farms have been hit hard, and the impact of the fire could be felt for several years.

July 26, 2021, 2:05 p.m. ET

When Jacob Hemphill pulled into the driveway at his 200-acre Christmas tree farm in Oregon City, Ore., on the second night of a record-breaking heat wave late last month, his stomach dropped.

That morning, a vast field of about 250,000 green trees had adorned his property. But now, it was patched over with large swaths of singed brown. All of his seedlings were gone, and some of his mature trees, too — a tremendous loss that he estimates could cost him about $100,000.

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Jacob Hemphill with a singed Christmas tree on his farm in Oregon.Credit…via Jacob Hemphill

The deadly heat wave that scorched the Pacific Northwest in late June also upended Oregon’s typically prosperous Christmas tree market. More Christmas trees are grown there than anywhere else in the country, followed by North Carolina and Michigan.

Farms like Mr. Hemphill’s dot the country roads southwest of Portland. But now, he said, “There’s nothing left.”

Climate change was already having an impact, even before the most recent heat wave. A recent U.S. Agriculture Department report found that from 2015 to 2020, the amount of acreage in the state growing Christmas trees dropped by 24 percent as wildfires and drought reduced the harvest.

Over the same time period, the average cost of Oregon trees — which are primarily sold on the West Coast — nearly doubled, the report said, from about $18 to $31 each.

When Mr. Hemphill took over the family farm in 2010, his father and uncle had already been growing trees for 26 years. But they never experienced anything like the weather conditions that Mr. Hemphill, 43, now faces.

Growing up, he said, rainfall was plentiful — and predictable — in the key growing period of early July. While the rain may have disrupted Fourth of July celebrations, it nourished the trees when they needed it most. But this July 4, like every other one in his more recent memory, was hot and dry.

The noble firs that Mr. Hemphill grows take about nine years to reach mature height, so he said he only recently began to see a return on the investment he made when he started planting in 2010.

He said he would keep planting for now, but he wondered whether he would eventually need to find more stable employment.

The best he can do now, he said, is pray for rain. “The problem is, it’s not even August yet.”