TIVERTON, R.I. (WPRI) — It is a tradition many families look forward to this time of year: finding that perfect Christmas tree.
But Rhode Islanders may want to pick their trees out earlier than usual.
This summer’s drought conditions hit local farmers hard, prompting some Christmas tree farms to limit their tree offerings or remain closed altogether.
“This is the worst year we’ve had in terms of tree loss,” said Eric Watne, owner of Clark’s Christmas Tree Farm in Tiverton.
Watne, who’s also president of the Rhode Island Christmas Tree Growers Association, and his wife have owned Clark’s for nearly two decades.
Clark’s is the oldest Christmas tree farm in Rhode Island, according to Watne, which is why he feels it’s his duty to keep family traditions alive.
But this year, he had to make a difficult and unfortunately decision.
“The damage from the drought, combined with the fact we couldn’t get any outside trees … we don’t have enough stock to open this year,” Watne said.
Clark’s isn’t the only Christmas tree farm that’s not opening this season.
Shire Tree Farm’s Wayne Gunderman tells 12 News that the drought conditions have “upset the balance between pests and predators.”
“That, combined with the trees struggling for water, has led to a deadly combination,” he explained.
In a statement, Bedrock Farm said, the drought “took it’s toll” on their trees.
“They will need this year to recover,” the statement reads.
Other farms will open for the season, including The Farmer’s Daughter in Portsmouth, but are limiting their tree offerings.
The damage at Clark’s is clearly visible, with the vast majority of trees appearing discolored.
Watne said six weeks ago the trees were green.
While this initially gave him hope that his farm had weathered the drought conditions, the situation quickly changed.
“On my farm, it compromised a tree’s ability to fight off normal pathogens that all growing things have,” Watne said. “In this case, it’s a small mite. It’s called cryptomeria scale.”
Watne’s Frasier firs were hit the hardest. The mites typically spread from tree to tree via the wind.
“They essentially suck the nutrients out of it, and that’s what turns the trees yellow,” Watne explained. “Typically, if the damage is really bad, the trees can’t recover from it.”
The wholesale Christmas tree market is in flux, too.
“There’s a shortage of those trees as well,” Watne said. “I wasn’t able to find any and I’m in the business.”
“There will be a reduced availability of trees in Rhode Island this year,” he continued. “But there are still plenty of healthy farms.”
But for the local farms impacted by the drought, the damage will be felt for years to come.
“This is going to be the worst year we’ve had,” Watne said. “This will effect us for the next five years, because of the number and size of trees we’re losing.”