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Drought, heat take toll on Christmas

BLOOMINGTON – Indiana Christmas tree growers are feeling the effects of this summer's drought, and some are rethinking their business plans – especially those pertaining to one of the holiday's most popular trees.

Many growers say the drought hit younger trees hard, especially Fraser firs.

"We lost loads of trees. Loads of them," said Gary Carpenter, who helps his brother-in-law, Greg Fowler, at his Christmas tree farm.

About 20 percent of Fowler's 45 acres is planted in Fraser fir, but Fowler told The Herald-Times he doesn't plan to plant any more because they don't tolerate Indiana's climate. He said he lost about 10 percent of his fir crop to last summer's heat and drought.

"Last year was bad. This year was worse," Fowler said.

Fraser firs are native to high elevations and cooler climates found in the southern Appalachian mountains. Temperatures above 85 degrees are hard on the trees, Fowler said.

Fowler said he's been growing firs for more than 30 years, and even though they are the most expensive tree he sells – $10 per foot – heat-related losses make them not worth growing. He said it's impossible to keep them watered in situations like last summer's weather.

"It would cost me an arm and a leg to water the trees. Watering the pumpkins is bad enough," he said.

Fowler said he removed many of his dead Frasers but left some standing so customers would understand the difficulties of trying grow firs in an unsuitable climate.

"We're making a deal on those: Buy one, get one free," he joked.

From now on, he plans to plant trees that can handle Indiana's heat. His white and Scotch pines fared well, as did the spruces, he said. Eventually, he told WRTV, he plans to concentrate on pumpkins, which tolerate the heat better.

Lindsey Purcell, a forester with the Purdue Extension Service, said climate change is altering many growing zones, and that some plants that thrive in cool, moist growing conditions are being pushed north.

But fans of the Fraser fir will likely still be able to find them – many tree sellers ship them in from other states with more favorable weather.

John Martin got Frasers for his New Albany tree lot from the Carolinas, which saw above-average rainfall during the summer.

"The trees have got plenty, plenty of moisture," Martin, a semi-retired landscaper, told the News and Tribune. "I know a lot of people are scared of the drought ... but I feel the trees are in better shape this year. I think we've got the best-looking bunch of trees that we've had in years."