SPARTA-Covered in sweat and sporting a shirt emblazoned with a skull and crossbones logo, Brad Edwards might not fit your image of a person who gets paid to research things for a living.
But when High Country Christmas tree growers need answers in a hurry, the North Carolina Cooperative Extension program assistant is among those they turn to.
Right now, Edwards, along with Ashe County Extension Horticulture Specialist Travis Birdsell, are working on one of the most vexing questions facing some of region’s largest Fraser Fir growers.
“How do we get the best quality trees to the largest number of buyers in the least amount of time,” Edwards said. “That’s the biggest question the big time growers deal with every season. And it’s a hard one to deal with because there are so many variables.”
Buyers want it, growers don’t
In recent years, large scale growers like Alleghany County’s Kathy Shore and Ashe County’s Greg Sexton have turned to “palletizing” their Christmas trees as a way to meet demands from large chain store buyers like Home Depot, Edwards said.
The idea is to take upwards of 30 cut and baled Christmas trees, and stack them in a machine – some cost upwards of $40,000 a piece – that compresses the entire bundle into a size that can fit onto a single wooden shipping pallet. The loaded pallet might weigh 1600-1700 pounds, Edwards said, but it actually makes shipping and receiving trees easier on both growers and buyers.
“When we loose packed trucks, it might take 10 guys about 4 hours to load a trailer,” Edwards said. “Palletizing the trees, it takes one forklift about 15-20 minutes to do the whole job, and it really helps the big chain stores on the other end offload this stuff.”
Smoking Christmas trees
But the method, which large growers have increasingly been forced to turn to over the past decade based on customer demand, comes with drawbacks that Edwards said the industry has only recently come to grips with.
“When you cut a tree, you have to deal with what’s called heat of respiration,” Edwards said. “As that tree is dying it gives off heat just like anything else.”
If cut Christmas trees are placed loosely against a wall, there’s usually no problem, Edwards said. But pack them tightly together on a shipping pallet, for instance, and the center of the tree bundles can become so hot they nearly burst into flames.
“There’s been instances in the past when these things have actually started to smoke,” Edwards said.
That heat ultimately plays havoc with Christmas tree quality, according to Edwards, affecting how the tree looks and how well it retains its needles.
“That needle retention factor is one of the most important parts in how the public perceives your product,” Edwards said. “If they’re taking their tree down and it’s left a mess in their floor, that’s the last thing they’ll remember, and exactly what you don’t want.”
Searching for answers
Over the past two years, Extension has attempted to help large-scale growers understand the best practices that will help them cut down their palletizing problems.
That’s come in the form of research efforts like the one carried out by Birdsell and Edwards earlier this month.
Shore’s Sparta-based nursery donated more than 200 trees, and the labor to cut and bale them, to the effort. Birdsell and Edwards used small hand held “data loggers” inserted into either end of the tree bundle to measure internal temperature and humidity on 15-minute intervals.
“The idea is to find out how long they need to let these trees cure before they’re palletized,” Edwards said. “And in some cases they’re going to get behind and they’ll palletize them right away – happens every year. But our goal is to help these growers understand exactly how soon they can get to work because the buyers are pushing them every step of the way.”
Reach Adam Orr at 336-846-7164 or Twitter.com/AdamROrr.