Monoculture for the Holidays: Christmas Trees Replace Forests as Crop of Choice

By Barbara Schmid and Fidelius Schmid

Environmental campaigners in Germany are up in arms because increasing areas of woodland are being switched to the cultivation of Christmas trees, which is far more lucrative than normal forests. Now a state government wants to limit the trend despite accusations that it is axing a centuries-old tradition.

A Christmas tree farm in a forest in Germany Zoom
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A Christmas tree farm in a forest in Germany

Only a few of the big ones are left over. The trees stand in little groups on both sides of the valley. "This all used to be forest," says Matthias Scheidt. "Today I can't think of five kilometers that aren't monoculture."

A monoculture that supplants the forest -- that's what happens in Brazil or Indonesia, with sugar cane or oil palm plantations. But environmental campaigner Scheidt isn't referring to faraway places. He's talking about his home region in the Hochsauerland region of western Germany.

The monoculture isn't easy to discern because the onset of winter has brought so much snow that fir tree seedlings near the town of Bestwig are almost completely covered in snow. One has to take a close look to grasp what is threatening the forest here -- it's Christmas trees.

Ever since "Kyrill," a violent storm, struck Europe in January 2007 and destroyed around 40 million trees -- many areas of Germany no longer grow traditional forests. Many of he foresters in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, for example, switched to planting fir trees instead. They ploughed the soil, put up fences and treated the trees with fertilizer and pesticide. "What's happening here has nothing to do with real forest," says Rainer Priggen, floor leader for the Green Party in the regional parliament of North Rhine-Westphalia. "This is pure agro-industry."

Storm Damage Prompted Switch to Christmas Trees

Members of the center-left state government, made up of Social Democrats and Greens, wants to stop the spread of Christmas trees, and have already drafted a law which will be submitted for consideration in January. They decided sensibly to wait until after Christmas to avoid dampening the holiday spirit.

At the moment, most Christmas trees are cultivated on fields which could also be used to plant cereal crops. But in recent years the Christmas industry has been conquering woodland. In 2006, some 1,890 hectares (4,670 acres) of woodland in North Rhine-Westphalia were used exclusively for the cultivation of Nordmann Fir and Blue Spruce trees.

After the devastation caused by "Kyrill," the farm area doubled. Last year, almost a quarter of all Christmas tree farms were located in forests. There's a good reason for that: One hectare planted with Christmas trees is far more profitable than the same area planted with traditional forest. The regional forest authority estimates that Christmas trees yield up to €6,000 ($7,900) per hectare in earnings per year, compared with just €200 for the same area of humble forest trees.

On the big farms in the Hochsauerland, trees already carry the labels of big German garden center chains in several languages, along with added information aimed at attracting buyers. The trees originate from Denmark and from "sustainable forestry," the labels say.

Concern Over Use of Chemicals

The origin presumably refers to the seedling planted and reared in Scandinavia. So formally, that part of the information is correct. But critics question the reference to sustainability. They fear that the pesticides used will damage other plants and that harvesting the forest ground will lead to erosion. They are also concerned that the fertilizer and pesticide could contaminate the groundwater. Traces of the controversial pesticide glyphosate have been found in six of 30 bodies of water in forests of the Sauerland region where the Environment Ministry took samples in 2012.

The state government wants to limit the growth of Christmas tree farms by following the example of four other German states where the planting of Christmas trees in woodland will in the future require official approval, as is already the case with farmland.

Opposition lawmaker Karlheinz Busen of the business-friendly Free Democratic Party fears that the government wants to "axe our centuries-old Christmas tree tradition." But the coalition is determined. "We will file our motion in January so that the change in the law can take effect in time for the next planting period," says Greens Party lawmaker Norwich Rüsse.

Matthias Scheidt, the environmental campaigner, says it's high time something be done. He, his father and several friends formed a pressure group to fight the swift growth of the Christmas tree farming business in the area. Within the past five years, the Christmas tree farms in Bestwig have been expanded by 625 percent, the group estimates. Scheidt doesn't think the government's plan goes far enough: "We want the current farms to be reverted to forest."

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