On Pines And Needles At The Mercy Of The Elements, Christmas Tree Growers Have A Friend In UI Extension Agent

TUESDAY, DEC. 23, 1997

Your firs look frazzled. A mysterious invader has pounced upon your pines.

Who ya gonna call?

If you’re a Christmas tree grower in the Inland Northwest, you call Dan Barney. Farmers with anxious questions track him down at the University of Idaho’s Research and Extension Center. They’ve even phoned his Sandpoint home at 4 a.m.

Farmer Dave Jenkins doesn’t call - he comes calling.

“If he gets a bug, he drives out to my station and says, ‘We’ve got a problem,”’ said Barney, laughing at the memory of Jenkins arriving in the research station fields, pests in hand.

Barney the Bugbuster’s official line of work is environmental plant stress physiology. The station, where he is superintendent and lone full-time scientist, deals with a wide range of questions: Can the wild huckleberry be domesticated? How hardy is the latest strain of wheat?

It’s practical science, aimed at making farms into successful businesses.

If people aren’t buying Christmas trees, it doesn’t do much good to help them survive. So Barney knows a lot about marketing, too. He commiserates with farmers over the nasty trend toward artificial trees. He applauds them for offering sleigh rides and other enticements to attract the cut-your-own crowd.

Barney has been at the research station for 10 years. Work on Christmas trees began here a half-century ago. The idea was to learn the nutritional needs of cultivated conifers, and find out which species grew best in the region.

Some research is done on the station’s 60 acres. There, experiments can be easily controlled. Sometimes, it’s carried out in commercial fields, where researchers can observe real-life conditions and benefit from the farmers’ knowledge.

The Christmas tree industry is relatively small here, especially compared with Oregon and the wetter side of Washington. But there are about a million yule trees planted in Eastern Washington, North Idaho and Western Montana, said Barney.

One of the biggest mistakes farmers can make is thinking that they can plant seedlings, wait eight years, and start cashing those yuletide checks.

Tree farming is a year-round proposition, Barney said. In winter, you plan. In spring, you plant. In summer, you prune. In autumn, you harvest.

“After its third year in the ground, a tree must be trimmed, sheared or hand-pruned every year. That’s especially true of pines,” he said. “The best growers probably have their hands on each tree three times a year.”

He stood at the Jenkins & Son farm north of Sandpoint and examined a pointy-topped fir. It had been shaped by frequent shearings.

“We call this a pencil-sharpener tree. It’s about 50 percent as wide as it is tall.”

Barney ranks Dave and Kitty Jenkins among the best growers. Dave and his dad went from ranching to the tree business 25 years ago, after cattle prices plummeted. The transition just made sense, said Dave Jenkins.

“Trees are what grow best here,” he said, standing in fields ringed by conifer-covered hills.

This has been a banner year for the Jenkins farm, according to his wife. “We shipped 25,000 trees, including 10,000 to Canada.”

Kitty Jenkins is the marketing maven of the family farm. While most of their trees are wholesaled or sold at the family’s own lots in southeastern Idaho, Kitty wants the cut-your-own business to grow. So she distributed $5-off coupons and was surprised by the number of people who came from as far away as Spokane.

Dismayed by the waste from damaged trees that couldn’t be sold, she started a wreath-making sideline.

Such ingenuity is a key to successful Christmas tree farming, said Barney. Farmers also must stay on top of trends. For example, the longtime favorite Scotch pine is becoming passe. Its long needles fall off too soon, said Barney.

The Fraser fir, a North Carolina native, is an up-and-comer. It lasts a long time in a tree stand and has airy boughs, just right for ornaments.

“The Douglas fir doesn’t do well here because of a bug problem,” Barney said. “And the Noble fir freezes its little buds off.”

Five years ago, the fragrant grand fir was the top star among Christmas trees. It became popular worldwide after it was developed by the Sandpoint research station in the 1970s and ‘80s, Barney said. Researchers bred it from Clearwater River Valley seed stock.

“The balsam fir is growing in popularity and will probably be the best tree in a few years,” Barney predicted.

Dave Jenkins isn’t too quick to make changes. He recalled the curious skepticism with which his Pocatello customers greeted grand fir not that long ago.

Accustomed to Scotch pines, they’d wrinkle their brows and say, “maybe we’ll try one next year.”

“People really know their Christmas trees,” he said. “They know what they want.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos


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