Even if Minnesota's drought ended tomorrow, the dry conditions of the past two summers may haunt Christmases yet to come.
Christmas tree growers say the lack of late summer and fall rains this year and last knocked out many newly planted trees, setting up shortages they'll be scrambling to cover six to 12 years from now.
"Trees can sometimes make up for it," said Ben Wolcyn of Wolcyn Tree Farms and Nursery, a 600-acre Isanti County operation that is one of the state's biggest producers. "We might plant extra next year, or we just might be cutting those trees a year sooner than they want to be cut."
Minnesota trees heading into people's homes this season are "heavy" -- the grower's term for green and healthy -- because they had root systems deep enough to withstand the two dry summers. They also benefited from a wet spring.
But the dry late summer and fall killed many young trees -- perhaps 40 percent, said Will Almendinger, owner of Rum River Tree Farm in Anoka County. In other parts of the Midwest, it appears to have taken all of them, said Bert Cregg, a Michigan State University horticulture professor.
The impact could also include higher prices, because Wisconsin -- a primary source of imported trees for Minnesota -- also struggled with drought, without getting rains this spring.
"Southern Wisconsin got hit really hard," Wolcyn said. "Six- to 10-foot trees are totally fried."
That means Minnesota retailers will likely turn to Michigan for more trees. Michigan is the nation's No. 3 producer, behind Oregon and North Carolina. Minnesota ranked ninth in both the 2002 and 2007 U.S. Census of Agriculture. Wisconsin was fifth in 2007.
A waning industry?
Minnesota's rank is unlikely to improve any time soon -- in fact, its Christmas tree production dropped by more than half between 2002 and 2007.
Wolcyn, whose father started the tree farm 44 years ago, said old-timers are disappearing from the business. Young farmers aren't replacing them because the cost of land is too high to get into the business. Meanwhile, Minnesota's generally flat landscape is better suited for more lucrative crops -- corn , in particular.
Although Minnesota winters are warming, they're still prone to the deep cold that can kill young trees, while growing seasons to the south remain longer, Almendinger noted.
Jeff Gilman, a professor of horticultural science at the University of Minnesota, said he's concerned that mature Christmas trees left standing are vulnerable this winter. Short of moisture going into the cold months, they could be dried out by strong westerly winter winds, turning brown and losing needles on their windward sides.
"Eventually, the trees could become healthy again,'' Gilman said, "but you'd have a lopsided tree that's lost a lot of its value."
The U.S. Drought Monitor, in its weekly update last Tuesday, found that nearly all of Minnesota remains in some kind of drought, but that it intensified from moderate to severe over more than 40 percent of the state. Precipitation in the metro area has been about 31 percent of normal from Aug. 1 through Thursday.
Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646