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The State We’re In — 11/30: To tree or not to tree?

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The holiday season’s here and it’s time for a tree. Do you go for a real tree or a fake?

You may think that an artificial tree is the more environmentally responsible choice – after all, it spares a real tree and is reusable.  But a New Jersey-grown tree is the greenest choice, and it supports Garden State agriculture and jobs!

Evergreen trees grown on Christmas tree farms are crops, planted for the sole purpose of being harvested during the holiday season.

“It’s not like we’re going into the forest and cutting down trees,” noted Tim Dunne, vice president of the New Jersey Christmas Tree Growers Association. “We’re growing a crop that just happens to be Christmas trees.”

Although artificial trees are convenient and reusable, they’re not good for the health or economy of this state we’re in. A great deal of pollution is generated by shipping artificial trees from overseas factories, mostly in China.  Most artificial trees are made with polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic, which can contain lead and arsenic.

And there’s no way to safely recycle artificial trees once they wear out. “They’ll end up in a landfill for thousands of years,” said Dunne.

Real trees, on the other hand, are all natural and smell wonderful! And after the holidays, they can be recycled into mulch or placed as wildlife cover in the woods or near your bird feeder. Some shore towns collect Christmas trees and use them for rebuilding dunes.

The Garden State’s Christmas tree industry dates back to 1901, when 25,000 Norway spruce saplings were planted at a Trenton-area farm and sold a few years later for $1 each.

According to a 2012 U.S. Department of Agriculture census (the most recent year for which figures are available) New Jersey has about 4,600 acres in Christmas tree production at some 800 farms. About 68,000 Jersey trees are cut each holiday season. And growers will replant an equivalent number in the spring!

To be sure your tree is grown in New Jersey, head for a local tree farm. Most encourage you to choose and cut your own tree, and will supply a hand saw. But if you can’t or don’t want to do the cutting yourself, they’ll usually do it for you. Some farms have a selection of pre-cut trees for customers in a hurry.

A trip to a Christmas tree farm will get you right into the holiday spirit.  Many New Jersey farms go all out, offering hayrides, hot chocolate and cookies, and even Santa visits.

“We get a lot of people coming out from the cities. It’s a very happy time,” said Donna Cole, secretary of the New Jersey Christmas Tree Growers Association. “If it’s a good experience, some families come back for generations, year after year.”

For the greenest tree this holiday, head to a local, organic farm and buy a live tree with a root ball that can be transplanted outdoors after the holidays. But be prepared, as planting a tree in January can be tricky. You’ll need to pre-dig the hole before the ground freezes, avoid windy locations, and carefully mulch the tree to keep the roots from freezing.

Despite New Jersey’s relatively small size, Cole said the Garden State is the nation’s fourth largest producer of Christmas trees, behind Washington, Oregon and North Carolina.

To make sure your tree comes from New Jersey, avoid seasonal displays set up outside big-box stores and along highways. According to the NJ Christmas Tree Growers Association, many of those trees were cut months ago from places as far away as Canada and stored in refrigerated boxes. They won’t last nearly as long as a fresh-cut tree.

Look no further than your local tree farm this year!  New Jersey-grown Christmas trees are a renewable and recyclable resource. They help Garden State farms stay in business, and successful working farms save open space!

To find Christmas tree farms near you, visit the NJ Christmas Tree Growers Association website at www.njchristmastrees.org. You can search by county and even find out which farms offer fun amenities like Christmas shops, hayrides and refreshments.

And for information about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.

Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation in Morristown.

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