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The process of forestry extension education: speciality tree production in North Carolina, United States

C.R. McKinley, J.R. Sidebottom and J.H. Owen

Craig R. McKinley is Associate Professor and Extension Forestry Specialist in the Forestry Department of North Carolina State University. Jill R. Sidebottom is Mountain Conifer Integrated Pest Management Specialist in the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service. Jeffrey H. Owen is Area Extension Forestry Specialist in the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service, North Carolina State University.

Note: This article is based on a paper presented at the conference entitled Education and Communication Applications in Natural Resource Management, held at the University of Georgia, Athens, United States from 27 to 29 September 1995.

The process of extension education is illustrated by the activities carried out by the Cooperative Extension Service and other agencies for growers and consumers of speciality Christmas trees, the product of an important sustainable forest industry in North Carolina, United States.

Evergreen trees play an important role in Christmas holiday celebrations in the United States and many other countries. The Christmas tree industry in the United States produces about 35 million trees annually and involves about 15 000 growers (National Christmas Tree Association, 1994). The National Christmas Tree Association also estimates that about 405 000 ha (1 000 000 acres) of Christmas trees are currently in production in the United States. Over 90 percent of the annual harvest are plantation-grown trees. Nationwide, the most popular species are Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris L.), Fraser fir (Abies fraseri [Pursh] Poir.), Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii [Mirb.] Franco), eastern white pine (Pinus strobus L.), Monterey or radiata pine (Pinus radiata D. Don) and Virginia pine (Pinus virginiana Mill.).

Five-year-old eastern white pine being grown as Chistmas trees in eastern North Carolina

Christmas trees are produced in a manner similar to other trees, but with a number of important differences (McKinley and McKeand, 1995). Christmas trees may be considerably more valuable at a young age than trees used for other wood products. For example, a Virginia pine seedling grown for four years may fetch US$40 if marketed directly from the grower's field on a "choose and cut" basis. Likewise, a five-year-old Fraser fir transplant grown for an additional seven years in the field may fetch $50 on a retail lot, with about half that value paid to the producer. As implied by the size of the product, Christmas trees are grown on much shorter rotations than timber species. The length of time in the field ranges from three to ten years depending on species, market, quality etc. Christmas trees are also managed much more intensively than other forest species. Fertilization, weed suppression and insect control are routinely practised in Christmas tree plantings. In addition, pruning to correct form and shearing to give the "Christmas tree look" are commonly applied management activities. While each of these management and cultural practices are components of Christmas tree production, specific practices vary among species, locations, markets, rotation ages and growers.

The marketing of Christmas trees and related products requires major investments of time and resources by successful producers. Although wholesale markets constitute a majority of the tree production industry's outlets, diverse retail and direct market sales are expanding. Individual producers are now more often investing in advertising, participating in trade shows and conducting direct mail advertising to customers.

Harvesting Fraser fir in western North Carolina prior to shipping


The Christmas tree industry in North Carolina essentially began as a "cottage industry" with the production of wreaths and garlands using branch tips from Fraser fir and eastern white pine, although a few North Carolina-grown trees were sold on retail lots or as "choose and cut trees" (where end consumers actually harvest their own trees) from local farms (Thiel, 1991). In the 1950s, the number of Christmas tree sales began to increase significantly and the industry became a viable economic force, particularly in western North Carolina. In 1959 the North Carolina Christmas Tree Growers Cooperative Association (later renamed the North Carolina Christmas Tree Association) was formed as a professional association aimed at collective improvement of the industry; at that time about 200 000 trees were sold annually from North Carolina (Rogers and Cartner, 1991).

Today the production of Christmas trees exists to some extent in about 80 of North Carolina's 100 counties. The annual production is about 5.5 million trees, with nearly all obtained from managed plantations. The most popular species are Fraser fir, eastern white pine and Virginia pine. The area producing the most trees is that of the 22 western counties located in the Appalachian Mountains where the three largest producing counties harvest over two million trees annually and have about 6 075 ha (almost 15 000 acres) under Christmas tree cultivation. The most important species in those counties is Fraser fir, a native to the higher elevations of the region which has the particular advantage of retaining its characteristics after shipping. The majority of production is wholesale-oriented, and trees are shipped to a large number of other states as well as overseas. The wholesale value of North Carolina Christmas trees is estimated to be greater than $80 million annually.


As part of the national Cooperative Extension System, the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service is an informal educational organization established as a partnership between the United States Department of Agriculture, North Carolina State University and North Carolina A&T State University and county governments. The overall philosophy of the Cooperative Extension Service is to provide problem-oriented education to individual people where they require it, both geographically and in terms of interests, understanding and skills. Characteristics of the Cooperative Extension Service (CES) which strengthen the organization's ability to serve clientele include:

The North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service has provided significant assistance to Christmas tree producers, retailers and consumers throughout the development of the industry. Early efforts included feasibility studies, species demonstrations and management techniques. Today's focus continues to be on production and management, but also includes environmental protection, taxation, labour, farm management, marketing and other critical issues.

County programmes

The strength of the Cooperative Extension Service's educational efforts is the county programmes supervised by a County Extension Director, with individual County Extension Agents having responsibility in specific technical areas. Through the county office, efforts are developed and delivered that meet specific needs of the public in that particular geographic area. Technical support is provided by subject matter specialists who serve either a specific geographic area or have statewide responsibility for assisting local extension personnel.

In North Carolina, the Christmas tree specialist staff consists of a state specialist based in Raleigh; and a mountain conifer integrated pest management specialist and an area Christmas tree specialist based in Fletcher (near Asheville). Specialists in other areas of expertise such as soils, economics, pathology and entomology also provide support on a regular basis. Scientists at North Carolina State University, other universities, government agencies and private companies serve as sources of research information on which the specialists base their recommendations.

A plantation of six-year-old Fraser fir in Jackson County, North Carolina

Local advisory committees

Each of the counties in the western part of North Carolina has an educational programme dealing with Christmas trees. These are the direct result of the needs identified by individuals involved in the Christmas tree industry in that area. County extension personnel, through consultation with local advisory committees, producer associations, growers and consumers, develop objectives and long-range goals. County advisory committees comprise local producers and community leaders and are the most formal means by which potential and existing programmes are evaluated. Advisory committees meet on a regular basis to provide input to County Extension Agents relative to industry issues. Information provided by these committees and by more informal sources assists in the planning and implementation of efforts to meet the specific needs of extension clients. Through this communication, feedback is also obtained relative to existing educational programmes.

County Extension Agents also receive guidance from other sources such as local Christmas tree associations and individual growers and consumers. As a result of this participation by interested parties at the local level, decisions can be made regarding programme needs and effectiveness that accurately reflect issues facing the industry in that geographic area.

Supporting the local extension efforts in terms of programme development and coordination is the state extension planning activity. General long-range educational objectives are identified on a statewide basis by extension personnel from the county, district and state levels. The objectives and goals developed are then summarized as part of a Cooperative Extension State Major Program. North Carolina has 21 such programmes, with Christmas trees being included in the Crop Production and Marketing segment. This planning effort does not develop a structured format for county activities to follow, but rather is designed to provide a flexible framework.

County personnel serve the educational needs of their clients by providing printed information, slides and videos, holding workshops, establishing demonstration areas, visiting growers' farms, etc. The mechanisms utilized in the educational programming effort are dependent on audience interests, audience size and subject matter. Most agents provide a periodic newsletter to maintain communication with clients and to notify interested individuals of upcoming events. In addition, agents involved in Christmas tree production hold both winter and summer workshops. Topics covered at these workshops are the result of interest expressed by clients or of problems observed by the agents during the previous year. For example, summer workshops often include shearing, which is an important part of management during that time of the year. Workshops are also held at different times of the year on a demand basis. Other communication techniques include radio and television announcements, newspaper articles and exhibits at trade shows and fairs.

Extension personnel are actively involved in state and county Christmas tree associations. The largest association is the North Carolina Christmas Tree Association, which is based in Boone and focuses on the production and marketing of Fraser fir by the wholesale producers. The association maintains a full-time executive director and serves the industry through a number of activities, including two conferences per year and the publication of a popular journal, Limbs and Needles. Other meetings are held in response to specific needs of the membership. A smaller but also active group is the Eastern North Carolina Christmas Tree Growers Association. This group is less structured and is a totally voluntary effort directed primarily at the production of "choose and cut" species outside the mountainous regions. Seven county-level organizations provide a local focus for Christmas tree and nursery issues. These county organizations often develop people's leadership qualities, allowing them to progress to top positions in state and national associations. Extension specialists and county personnel serve as advisors to these groups as well as providing information for journal and newsletter articles. Extension personnel also participate in meetings and workshops sponsored by national, state and county associations.

Christmas tree growers have been provided with assistance on such issues as migrant labour management, Christmas tree genetics, watershed regulation, pesticide application safety and marketing through printed information, training and on-site demonstrations and workshops when requested.

Extension education for consumers

Extension education in North Carolina is also directed towards Christmas tree consumers, including wholesale and retail purchasers as well as end-use customers. Major educational efforts relate to care and handling of trees throughout the harvesting, shipping, selling, displaying and disposal processes. A number of publications dealing with proper handling have been prepared and distributed. On-site visits to tree lots during the Christmas season are made to assist dealers in the handling and displaying of trees in the most effective manner.

For final consumers, printed information is provided along with press releases on the care of trees during the holidays. A telephone educational service for consumers (called Teletips) is sponsored by the Cooperative Extension Service on a statewide basis. Teletips provides a short recorded message on various topics, including the selection of Christmas trees and the handling of them in the home.

Many county extension personnel have augmented their existing educational programmes by procuring outside grants. The grant process both permits new educational programmes to be initiated and also greatly leverages available funds to enhance programmes already in place. Examples of programmes developed from grant funds include: a two-county water quality project utilizing best management practices, a water-well sampling programme and comprehensive Christmas tree marketing programmes.


The Cooperative Extension Service has played a significant role in the development of the North Carolina Christmas tree industry. Educational efforts have been directed at various aspects of plantation establishment and management, marketing and consumer satisfaction. As a model programme, activities related to integrated pest management (see Box) have proved to be very successful in terms of grower response and desirable outcomes.

Several of the key elements in effective forestry extension education, discussed in this case-study, merit highlighting:

One of the more difficult aspects of extension programming is the evaluation of programme impacts on clientele. Relative to the national Christmas tree industry, North Carolina now produces about 15 percent of the trees sold nationally each year. Some of that success must be attributed to the Extension Service's educational efforts. On a more specific basis, some 80 percent of all North Carolina producers utilize storage procedures developed at North Carolina State University and recommended by extension personnel. Additionally, a majority of growers now use soil sampling to evaluate site nutrient status whereas, initially, very few samples were taken. Tissue sampling, promoted by extension personnel, is also becoming a popular technique to examine plant nutrient levels. These types of response indicate a positive impact of extension education on the North Carolina Christmas tree industry.

A number of issues continue to be of concern to Christmas tree producers throughout the nation as well as in North Carolina. They include a greater sensitivity regarding the manner in which trees are produced, environmental concerns about the impacts of pesticides and cultural practices, increased governmental regulation and overall farm management. The Cooperative Extension Service must address these issues in an integrated, well-coordinated manner if its educational efforts are to have an impact on the industry's ability to act in a positive manner.


McKinley, C.R. & McKeand, S.E. 1995. Genetic improvement of Christmas trees: progress and possibilities. In Proceedings 23rd Southern Forest Tree Improvement Conference, p. 48-54. 20-22 June, Asheville, NC, USA.

National Christmas Tree Association. 1994. Holiday story ideas from the National Christmas Tree Association. 7 pp. (press material)

Rogers, D. & Cartner, S. 1991. History of the North Carolina Christmas Tree Association. Limbs and Needles, 18(2): 17, 20-21.

Thiel, P. 1991. It all started when ...: an interview with John Gilliam. Limbs and Needles, 18(2): 16.

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