Flyin' Around the Christmas Trees

Thursday, December 24, 2020  •  Episode 13

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Happy Holidays! Have you ever thought about where your Christmas tree comes from, all the work that went into that Christmas tree, or the technology that a farmer might use to produce that Christmas tree? While certain states such as Oregon and North Carolina produce many more Christmas trees than other U.S. states, Christmas Tree farms of all sizes exist in every state. Christmas tree farms are also prevalent internationally in Canada and Europe. Recently, University researchers, companies, and farmers have begun using UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) to improve the efficiency of Christmas tree operations. In this episode of the FarmBits podcast, we will dive into the topic of UAV use in Christmas tree production. None of us on the FarmBits team are experts in Christmas tree production, but we had a lot of fun learning about Christmas tree production and were excited to hear how the technologies we use in row crop agriculture may be used to benefit farmers raising high value crops so different from what we're used to. We hope that you will enjoy learning about this unique industry, too! Some of these technologies may even eventually help Nebraskans to solve the Eastern Red Cedar problem more effectively. Have a wonderful holiday season!

Opinions expressed on FarmBits are solely those of the guest(s) or host(s) and not the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

On this episode

host Samantha Teten
host Jackson Stansell
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Show Notes


North Carolina State University - UAVs and Christmas Trees:

Michigan State - Drones in Nursery Production:

New York Times Christmas Tree Article (2020):

Pennsylvania State Extension Christmas Tree Article:

Nebraska Christmas Tree Growers Directory:

FarmBits Team Contact Info:



Samantha's Twitter:

Jackson's Twitter:


Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy by Kevin MacLeod is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license.



Read Transcript

Jackson: Happy holidays

Samantha: Merry Christmas everyone.

Jackson: Happy Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, whatever you are celebrating out there in the world. We're also looking forward to 2021. I think it's been a heck of a year, 2020 has. It's good to have a celebration. 

Samantha: Absolutely, and you can see we're trying to get into the Christmas spirit a little bit with our virtual backgrounds here. Jackson's got his awesome Santa Claus hat on, so we are celebrating full swing here the Digital Ag Team. 

Jackson: Exactly and even though I'm in Dothan, Alabama where we have 60 degree weather right now, I get to have a little bit of white Christmas in my virtual background. 

Samantha: Yeah you don't need to rub in the nice weather to the rest of us who still have snow on the ground but glad you are made it safely home and get to celebrate with your family. 

Jackson: Absolutely, it's exciting and I hope everybody is able to do some celebrating with their family this year. You know in spite of everything that's going on with with COVID- 19, I hope that people are being safe but also you know taking the time family is a valuable, valuable, valuable resource for us and I hope everybody is able to find some time for family during the holidays this year. 

Samantha: Absolutely and also if you find yourself traveling, we hope that you tune in to some of our previous episodes while you have some of that drive time. 

Jackson: Yep they're great ways to fill your time and also make great use of it by learning about digital ag and some of the things that are either already here and that we need to make better use of or some of the things that are on the horizon and may make an impact on agriculture here in 2021 and beyond. 

Samantha: So speaking of digital ag, we're going to dive into our topic today with something a little bit unique but. When you think about Christmas and you think about Christmas trees, something you may not have thought of is where those trees came from or the technology that was needed to produce them. 

Jackson: 100% and Christmas tree production is actually something that a lot of universities' extension programs focus on. There are a lot of Christmas tree growers out there, a lot more than I realized and they are starting to get into this this digital ag approach and kind of how we got to the idea of this episode is through finding an article online from North Carolina State Extension that was talking about UAVS and Christmas trees. And we'll post a link to that article in the show notes, but I thought it was a super interesting article, didn't you Sam? 

Samantha: I did too, it was yeah something we don't think about even though we use UAVS in our research we don't necessarily think about how they're used other places. And you know I say other places but really there's actually 50 Christmas tree growers at least in Nebraska too. So we may not be the top producing state of Christmas trees but we do have some farmers here in Nebraska that are providing that for us. 

Jackson: Yeah and you can find your Christmas tree producer there locally if you want to go and get a real Christmas tree this year and support some of your local farmers. There's actually a kind of a directory of those Nebraska Christmas tree growers that's offered I believe by the Nebraska Christmas Tree Growers Association online and it's basically through, so that's a good opportunity for you to find your local Christmas tree growers. And so, beyond Nebraska there's a lot of Christmas tree production in other areas of the United States. Oregon is the number one Christmas tree producing state, North Carolina is number two and overall the industry is a 250 million dollar industry in the United States. 

Samantha: Wow, that's yeah it's a very high value crop and what's interesting or what we found was actually that production has been down within the last few years uh we actually found a statistic on it that's dropped more than 25 percent between 2002 and 2017. But there's also some good news that in 2020 when people were at home and were spending more time with uh they're in their houses a lot more people actually went out and bought Christmas trees, real Christmas trees. 

Jackson: Yeah and there's actually a New York Times article kind of an interactive article that came out uh yesterday on the 17th of December from a Canadian Christmas tree farm, I believe it was in Ontario, but I'll have to double check that. But either way they said that they're having their best year that they've ever seen right now, and I don't know if that's because more people are taking the time to you know really invest in Christmas trees this year with less I don't know busyness with COVID and everything but that's pretty exciting to see I guess for Christmas tree growers out there. 

Samantha: I would agree, Jackson do you get a real Christmas tree? 

Jackson: So I do not I think I would if I was actually going to be in my own apartment there in Lincoln for Christmas but since I'm back here and Dothan uh we have an artificial Christmas tree at my house. And quite honestly my parents are just about done with it uh because it's one of the pre-lit Christmas trees that supposedly makes everything very easy um but when the lights go out and certain sections of the Christmas tree don't work uh it can be a little bit frustrating because it's like well why didn't we just go ahead and get a regular Christmas tree and string our own lights. 

Samantha: All right so in a couple years when you get a real one then you'll realize though they can be a lot of work, but it's definitely it's nice to have their house smell like a real Christmas tree, it's worth it. Yeah so we get a Christmas, a real Christmas tree at my parents' house but it's one just from our own farm. I have not been to a really nice Christmas tree farm before, it's very interesting to see some of these pictures. 

Jackson: Well, it's kind of nice to have a kind of a resource there on your farm to be able to just go and get your own Christmas tree. Do you string your own lights? Yeah yep. Any special ornaments that you like to put on your Christmas tree? 

Samantha: Yeah, we our family gets an ornament every year from my grandparents and then I also get an ornament from my parents every year, so I just have like this timeline of ornaments across a part of the tree that I get to call my own. And then you know my siblings all have ornaments on the trees as well, what about you?  

Jackson: It's really cool yeah, we we've kind of we used to have an ornament tradition- my mom was a big well so we were big Star Wars fans growing up and then also my mom was a big Gone with the Wind fan, fan so we used to get a Gone with the Wind ornament every time a new one came out, and so we have a bunch of those that go on the tree. Obviously, we have a ton of commemorative ornaments from when my brother and I were little and there are plenty of Star Wars ornaments. We have a ton of ornaments we've gotten a lot worse at decorating the Christmas tree as the kids have gotten older um meaning me and my brother, so you know we're not around to help decorate anymore which can slow things down quite a bit. 

Samantha: Yeah my you know because we just get a tree from our own farm my dad sometimes threatens to not get one and we've gone a couple of years without a tree uh but we always you know you make the most of it and it's so fun to get all those decorations out and reminisce about those things. So yeah hopefully your family every you know family out there is able to do those things more this year, hopefully have more time. 

Jackson: I hope so, and I think Christmas trees are one of those traditions- right that have so many family ties to them and really a lot of Christmas tree production is done by families that have had Christmas tree farming in their history for you know decades and generations now. And so there are a lot of kind of smaller operations like when you think of the scale of row crop agriculture in Nebraska for example it's not uncommon to have a you know three thousand, four thousand, five thousand acre farm. And when you think about Christmas tree production it's really you know you're really thinking a lot smaller scale. Like there are going to be some farms that are less than 100 acres out there that are you know able to sustain themselves pretty well because it is such a high value crop.

Samantha: Absolutely yeah. 

Jackson: Small acreages but there's a lot of investment right so with them being so high value there is a lot of investment that goes into it up front. So when you think about how much you may have to invest on a one-acre basis, Penn State kind of threw out this number, and I think this is from I think a 2012 article that Penn State had it would take between 11 and 12 thousand dollars to pay for the seedlings to plant on one acre of Christmas tree production land, which is quite enough for an investment. 

Samantha: That is a huge upfront investment and you would think about how a lot of people may think that you just plant it and forget about it but that's really not the case you know something that we learned was you know from that same article they talked about how there can be you know six to seven spray applications a year. So that's inputs just like we have on our corn and soybean farms as well that you're thinking about, but now think about it in the long term of multiple years on the same plant. 

Jackson: Yeah, because it may be seven to 12 years before you're really able to harvest that tree, right it's got to get to the right height, it needs to be the right maturity to where the the aesthetics of the tree are correct. Because that's really what a lot of people are purchasing on right is the aesthetics of the tree. And so there's a ton that goes into it, and I want to go ahead and make this statement up front neither Sam nor I are experts on Christmas tree production, we've simply been  learning and have been fascinated I think with exactly what all goes into it. I mean I was watching a video this morning uh of people shearing Christmas trees uh and and exactly how that process is done and it was super interesting so. 

Samantha: Yeah, and it's so hard for us to imagine I think you know seven to 12 years you know and if you plant a crop, corn or soy beans or a row crop where you know you plant it and it's a rough year the conditions maybe weren't well you move on to the next year but then try to imagine that with a crop that you need year after year and how one bad year could have an influence on multiple years’ crop. It's just very hard to get your mind wrapped around that investment.

Jackson: So, trying to match really the issue there right is trying to match the supply with the demand, right because if you don't have your Christmas trees one year because the ones that you had harvested somehow were you know there was some mistake that was made in the production process, then all of a sudden you're going to have a lot of people that are unable to buy a Christmas tree from you and maybe they're not going to return. Maybe they go to the different Christmas tree farm down the road that does have trees- so that's a huge impact and also how are you supposed to have an idea of what people are wanting to shop for seven to twelve years out from when you're actually gonna sell the product. 

Samantha: Right, I mean we had no idea seven years ago that we were going to have a pandemic in 2020 and that the demand for trees would be up. So yeah it's very hard to think about that demand. 

Jackson: And trying to match up that demand is just one of the challenges that Christmas tree farmers face. Another one is disease and interestingly enough so there are some other diseases out there. There are some needle-related diseases that just kind of you know lead to yellowing of leaves which affect the aesthetics um but then there's an even more serious disease that we may be familiar with called photophor root rot, right Sam? 

Samantha: Absolutely Yeah you may see that out in your soybeans, but who would have thought it also affects trees. 

Jackson: Yeah, and it's really interesting it's basically spread via spores and it's really prevalent within depressions uh on these Christmas tree farms. 

Samantha: Yeah, so any of you guys who have ever had phytothera you know it's in cold and wet conditions that you see it a lot and so same thing uh with trees. And so how to manage for that is very interesting you know if it were to wipe out all of your seedlings one year you won't have trees 12 years from now. 

Jackson: Exactly and it's especially challenging with Christmas tree production right. Because Christmas trees are a type of tree that really does or at least a lot of the varieties that are grown as Christmas trees are varieties that do not like to have wet feet so to speak they really want drier soil. And so a lot of Christmas tree farms are built on slopes to help with some of that runoff and they like really rocky terrain, right Sam? 

Samantha: Yeah, our understanding is that they are often planted on slopes. And like I, said rocky terrain because they need to have well one the one with the good drainage but also you know their roots have to be able to get a lot deeper than maybe you know our corn plants do so uh yeah they're often planted on slopes which presents a lot of other challenges as well. 

Jackson: Yeah, and especially, I guess I'm thinking about drought for example. So if you've got a slope a lot of that water is going to want to run down to the bottom where it's probably where you're going to have a lot of the issues with disease right but at the same time if it's dry it's going to be a real challenge. 

Samantha: That's right and we also think about how you know well the water interactions that affect nutrient interactions or how that slope then you know influences the movement of nutrients and so that's something you know that we can all relate to. But maybe you didn't think about for your trees. 

Jackson: Exactly, so a few other issues that Christmas tree producers run into that you may not think about in row crop production- one of them is rodents. So apparently rodents are a really big issue for trees, I guess they like to make their homes in trees so that can be an issue. Theft and vandalism are actually two things that you have to apparently worry about in Christmas tree production. Which I guess I was very surprised about. 

Samantha: I'd agree, I'm sure it comes with the territory of being a high value crop. You know you don't have to worry about something coming into your corn field and stealing a bunch of the ears of corn but apparently you know the high value crop it is a concern. 

Jackson: Yeah, and then one of the last ones that was uh kind of listed in the articles that we found about Christmas tree production is fire. I know seeing in the news all the West Coast fires that we have this year and even not just on the West Coast but in Colorado and Western Nebraska even. Fires were a really big deal and with Oregon being the top Christmas tree producing state they might have gotten really really hit hard by those fires. 

Samantha: Maybe that's why demand is up in Canada. 

Jackson: That's very true yeah we may have may have to be shipping some down here across the border. But this kind of brings us to the real topic we wanted to get to today, you know we're a digital ag podcast and so North Carolina State and Michigan State are two universities we've found in just our short reading for this episode that are starting to explore UAV usage in Christmas trees. And some of the areas that they're working on that in are inventory management and crop height measurements are kind of the first two kind of steps in the in the direction of you using UAVS in Christmas tree production that we've we've heard of. 

Samantha: And we tried to set the stage of the challenge of managing Christmas trees that you know if they're grown on slopes you can imagine walking and trying to scout per se of these trees to see how their height is or how many you have to sell this year. You could think about how if you could get a UAV out there to take a picture um that would help make that prediction for you or that estimation for you how that would save on your time, and your labor and your stress, I'm sure as well. 

Jackson: Yeah and depending on how your how your Christmas tree crop is planted right you may have very narrow rows which means you have to have a much narrower wheelbase tractor in order to get around you know using any equipment. So there's a lot of rollover risk there especially if you're on a slope and so there are a lot of safety concerns out there for folks too, that UAVS may be to able to help with. 

Samantha: And let's talk about this- how they're doing the inventory of management. Am I correct that they are you know they're taking multiple pictures and you know they're it doesn't do a great job of showing- it doesn't look like a Christmas tree per se it looks kind of just like a little mound out there or a haystack or a shrub but using some models they can actually then estimate the height of the tree, what the point of that tree is to try to do those height estimations. 

Jackson: Yeah, exactly and this requires some manual on the ground work of going out and getting those those true heights right and then also building the algorithm on the back end that is able to identify- okay we know that there's a point to this tree but as you mentioned it's a haystack error so you've just got this rounded off top that looks like a juniper shrub you know and you kind of have to tie those boots on the ground measurements to what the stitched images are reporting. And so, North Carolina state is really trying to do a lot of work in that area right now and from what I understand and conversations that we had with with Jeff Owen there at North Carolina State Extension heading into this episode. They're starting to make some headway and they're able to you know get pretty close on these crop height measurements and even get you know good counts of Christmas trees that are ready to harvest. 

Samantha: So yeah that's really interesting, you know you'd think it'd be something fairly simple but it's really a complex thing and it's cool to hear that the universities are doing research on it. 

Jackson: Yeah and from what I understand, the UAVS are not the simplest to fly on these really sloppy terrains right because we know from flying a fixed wing drone that there can be warnings at times even when the drone is is nowhere close to the ground about ground proximity warnings and so actually planning flights to uh be prepared for the slopes uh that are that are going to change quite frequently on Christmas tree farms is apparently a challenge within UAV use and Christmas tree production. 

Samantha: Yeah, and we have enough challenges how it is in Nebraska keeping our drone out of trees lines and out of other obstacles. So I can't imagine flying a drone around all these trees, and I'm sure they have to fly fairly low too. So um yeah they have a lot harder of a time than we do but it's very interesting. 

Jackson: Yeah, and it can be very useful I guess a few other uses that they've that Jeff was telling me about when I talked to them, uh was that they're looking at using UAVS for disease detection so actually being able to figure out which trees are infected with for example needle cast disease or if I top the root rot and being able to track how that spreads on a farm and potentially even how to how to manage that. 

Samantha: Absolutely and then it also sounds like they're using it for some site-specific pest management or maybe that's more coming in the future, maybe it's just being explored right now but that would be really exciting as well, as well as nutrient management. So that's how we use it in our research, but it's cool to see it in other crops as well. Especially Christmas trees, and then it could be used for other things as well kind of like a scouting tool right? 

Jackson: Exactly I'm just kind of identifying some different site selection aspects maybe going in and figuring out where you want to harvest trees first. Just kind of tying back to that disease element right if you have disease that you can see spreading in a particular area of your farm there are probably some trees that are right there near near it that maybe haven't been infected yet that you want to go ahead and harvest while they're still of value. So that's one other way that I think these drones can be used, it's just it's super cool to me to think about a drone flying through you know a Christmas tree farm and really being able to get right up onto a tree and say if only one tree really needs this fungicide treatment, or this pesticide treatment- especially in the environmental context that we're in now where we have you know organics being such a popular thing. Being able to go in and just spray one Christmas tree instead of doing a blanket application on the whole farm is kind of a really cool opportunity I think. 

Samantha: Absolutely, both from a marketing aspect but also saving you know the bottom line of the farmer too. If they don't have to spend as much on a herbicide because it's only or a pesticide because it's only affecting a handful of trees and they know where those trees are how much money that could be saving as well. 

Jackson: Yeah, and on top of just you know only doing it on one tree, also making it more efficacious right for that particular tree because one of the issues according to Jeff that they currently have right is when they're making their pesticide applications right now they're relying on a lot of drift and for things that are sprayed a while or quite a distance away from the rest of the farm to get to those trees. But you really don't get great penetration into the tree canopy with those products. But with a drone you can get close enough to the tree and hopefully with enough spraying power that you should be able to get deep into that canopy and really take care of the problem which ultimately is going to get you better bang for your buck with that product. 

Samantha: Absolutely so yeah it sounds like there's a lot of opportunity to use digital technology and this you know specialty crop and uh it's very interesting hopefully we can see some of that being applied to us as well. 

Jackson: Yeah and I think really a problem that we have out here in Nebraska that may have some there may be an impact area for some of these technologies for us is with eastern red cedar management, right Sam? 

Samantha: Absolutely so some of you listeners probably even know better than I do about the problem that we have with eastern red cedars and you know something that started you know decades ago when we were planting it for wind breaks and then it just became such an invasive tree and really just took over and so now it's hurting range land, it's hurting livestock production. Just because it's hurting the um you know the grazing quality or the grassland quality. And so we got to start thinking about creative ways to start managing this. 

Jackson: And one of the biggest things I would imagine is figuring out where your biggest problems are right so figuring out where the greatest density of trees are and so some of that inventory management aspect and even identifying a red cedar from a different type of tree, potentially. If it's near another tree line that may be expanding into land that you don't want to get to. I think those are some really big aspects of this to try to target some of that management for eastern red cedars. 

Samantha: Absolutely you have to know how big the problem is before you can really start to treat it and you know maybe it's also just prioritizing right so if you think about some of the management is with burning or some of it's out manually cutting it down you really have to target the worst areas first and so knowing where that is using UAVS could be really beneficial. As well as you know the future technology of can we treat them with UAVS, can we start fires can we uh do spray applications with UAVS. I think that's down the road but very interesting to think about. 

Jackson: And maybe even tracking like how good of a job we did with those management practices, seeing if two years down the road uh any of those trees are still hanging around or if any new trees have sprung up in that same area. And being able to figure out okay did this management practice actually work for me in this in this application. 

Samantha: And hopefully these are all things that we can learn from the Christmas tree industry. So that'd be really cool to see. 

Jackson: And if you do want to learn a little bit more about eastern red cedar management, we do have some experts at UNL one of whom is Dirac Twidwell over in the agronomy and horticulture department. Dr. Twidwell would be a great resource, and I'm sure that he would appreciate anybody reaching out who wants to learn more about eastern red cedar uh production or not- management. Thinking about Christmas tree production over here. So, I guess you know, with that said we'll go ahead and start wrapping up here because it's Christmas and I think we all want to go enjoy a little bit more Christmas. But i think it's been really fun to talk about Christmas trees and learn a little bit more about what all goes into Christmas tree production. 

Samantha: That's all right so next time when you look at your Christmas tree you'll probably be thinking about some of the fun facts hopefully that we shared with you. And yeah you may not look at your artificial or a real tree the same again. 

Jackson: Yeah, I know for me there's a ton more that goes into Christmas tree production than I really thought, and I know that not everybody out there is that's a Christmas tree grower is using these digital technologies right now. But even all the manual labor that goes into making sure that these trees stay healthy and aesthetically pleasing for you know seven to twelve years is really impressive. And I do want to support that industry and so I'm definitely gonna be looking uh looking more to getting a real Christmas tree here in the future.

Samantha: Yeah, just learning about any type of crop that is grown so differently than uh the typical crops in Nebraska is very cool to see and you think about their lifestyles uh and that huge investment uh is very interesting. 

Jackson: At the end of the day no matter how different our production scenarios are, like we're all kind of in the agriculture industry together. And I think that's something that's that's so cool to see because everybody has their own challenges to deal with and everybody loves doing it you know just as much as the next person everybody loves what they're doing it seems like. 

Samantha: And we hope that digital ag could help. 

Jackson: Absolutely so with that that is the conclusion of this FarmBits episode. We hope that you'll join us next week, we're going to dive into uh some of what happened in 2020 and kind of provide a review of how that impacted digital ag in 2020. And maybe even talk a little bit about where we're going in 2021.

Samantha: Absolutely so we hope you join us next week and we hope you have a safe and merry Christmas.

Jackson: Merry Christmas, happy holidays see you next time. Thank you for taking the time to join us today on the FarmBits podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe to the podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, YouTube or wherever you listen to podcasts to be informed about the latest content each week. 

Samantha: We welcome your feedback so if you have comments or questions for us please reach out to us over email, on Twitter, or in the review section of your favorite podcast platform. Our contact information can also be found in the show notes. 

Jackson: We would like to thank Nebraska Extension for their support of this podcast and their commitment to providing high quality informational material to members of the agricultural community in Nebraska and beyond.

Samantha: The opinions expressed by the hosts and guests on this podcast are solely   their own and do not reflect the views of Nebraska Extension or the University of Nebraska- Lincoln.

Jackson: We look forward to you joining us next week for another episode of FarmBits.

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