When Jacob Hemphill pulled into the driveway at his 200-acre Christmas tree farm in Oregon City, Oregon, on the second night of a record-breaking heat wave late last month, his stomach dropped.
That morning, a vast field of about 250,000 green trees had adorned his property. But now, it was patched over with large swaths of singed brown. All of his seedlings were gone, and some of his mature trees, too — a tremendous loss that he estimates could cost him about $100,000.
The deadly heat wave that scorched the Pacific Northwest in late June also upended Oregon’s typically prosperous Christmas tree market. More Christmas trees are grown there than anywhere else in the country, followed by North Carolina and Michigan.
Farms like Hemphill’s dot the country roads southwest of Portland. But now, he said, “There’s nothing left.”
Climate change was already having an impact, even before the most recent heat wave. A recent U.S. Agriculture Department report found that from 2015 to 2020, the amount of acreage in the state growing Christmas trees dropped by 24% as wildfires and drought reduced the harvest.
Over the same time period, the average cost of Oregon trees — which are primarily sold on the West Coast — nearly doubled, the report said, from about $18 to $31 each.
When Hemphill took over the family farm in 2010, his father and uncle had already been growing trees for 26 years. But they never experienced anything like the weather conditions that Hemphill, 43, now faces.
Growing up, he said, rainfall was plentiful — and predictable — in the key growing period of early July. While the rain may have disrupted Fourth of July celebrations, it nourished the trees when they needed it most. But this July 4, like every other one in his more recent memory, was hot and dry.
The noble firs that Hemphill grows take about nine years to reach mature height, so he said he only recently began to see a return on the investment he made when he started planting in 2010.
He said he would keep planting for now, but he wondered whether he would eventually need to find more stable employment.
The best he can do now, he said, is pray for rain. “The problem is, it’s not even August yet.”