by Enrico Villamaino

Although Christmas comes but once a year, a team of dedicated professionals works year round to ensure the health of New York State’s Christmas trees.

On June 16, the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Dutchess County (CCEDC) hosted an online informational meeting geared toward helping Christmas tree farmers protect the well-being of their plantings.

Normally held as a live seminar, the CCEDC hosted a Zoom-based conference in order to adhere to COVID-19-related social distancing guidelines.

Outlining the challenges that will face fir tree growers in the coming months was Stephanie Radin, the CCEDC’s Agriculture and Horticulture Program leader. Christmas tree farmers are to proceed with business while still adhering to new protocols established by the state government.

“Although mainly conducting its sales during the end of the calendar year, Christmas tree growers are luckily deemed year round essential businesses,” said Radin. “While these farms were never entirely closed down, they’ve had to make substantial adjustments. In order to move forward and be ready for the coming busy season, Christmas tree farmers should be focusing on two main points: guidelines and templates.”

Radin explained that every Christmas tree farmer must be familiar with the most current state operating guidelines and design a safety plan based on available state templates. Radin made clear that guidelines are likely to change as the COVID-19 situation develops. Safety plans do not have to be turned in to authorities for approval, but they should address how to best maintain both employee and customer safety.

Dr. Betsy Lamb of the CCE’s Integrated Pest Management Department, elaborated on the necessity of having a thorough safety plan.

“Safety plans should cover issues such as properly spacing out customers, having sanitizer on hand and requiring masks to be worn,” she stated. Lamb added that as of now, it is not clear how safety plans will be enforced, but concerned customers will likely report businesses they feel are unsafe to state officials. “We are encouraging everyone to have a defined safety plan in place.”

Brian Eshenaur, also of the IPM Department, outlined additional threats to the 2020 Christmas tree crop.

“The spotted lanternfly is a real concern for us,” Eshenaur said. According to him, the invasive insect does not feed on fir trees, but it does lay its eggs in them. “We want to avoid having people buy Christmas trees, take them home and have these eggs hatch inside their houses.”

There are current spotted lanternfly infestations in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Virginia and West Virginia. The insect has also recently been spotted in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts.

Eshanaur encouraged farmers who have detected signs of the spotted lanternfly to make a report to the proper authorities. Signs of an infestation include sap oozing or weeping from tiny open wounds on tree trunks, which appear wet and may give off fermented odors; one-inch-long egg masses that are brownish-gray, waxy and mud-like; and massive honeydew build-up under plants, sometimes with black, sooty mold. In New York, reports should be sent to “Please do not call 911!” he pleaded. “That happened in Philadelphia. It did not go over well!”

Eshanaur had a final warning for those growing Douglas fir trees: “The Douglas fir is a very popular tree. It grows well here and is very deer resistant. Unfortunately, it is also quite susceptible to Swiss needle cast.”

Swiss needle cast (SNC) is a foliage disease that is specific to the Douglas fir and is caused by the fungal pathogen Nothophaeocryptopus gaeumannii. Eshanaur emphasized the importance of early detection of SNC, since often trees can be infected for an entire year before it is diagnosed. SNC disease symptoms include chlorotic (yellow) needles and decreased needle retention, resulting in sparse crowns and reduced diameter and height growth.

“By staying vigilant, we can still have a good season,” he concluded.