Caroline Garnier heard the hail before she saw it.
It was 8 p.m. on a June evening when the first piece of hail hit her roof. Within minutes, chunks of ice were puncturing holes through it. But her worries laid elsewhere.
“My first thought was, What’s going to happen to the trees?” she said.
Garnier is one of many Christmas tree farmers living in the Morvan, France’s oldest Christmas tree growing region where roughly 100 local farmers sell, on average, a million trees a year that are grown across over 3,700 acres of farmland. Life here revolves around Christmas trees: locals grow them, sell them, and even name their marathons and markets after them. As I drove into the region, I saw signs that indicated where to find the nearest Christmas tree farm and passed truck drivers delivering trees.
Climate change is now threatening this community’s way of life. Changes to seasonal weather patterns mean tree farmers in the Morvan are now forced to plant their seedlings in the fall instead of the spring. They have to cut their trees later in the season in the hopes of colder weather. This year was a particularly rough season: extreme heat and unseasonable hail wreaked havoc on Christmas tree farms throughout the Morvan. Across the world, Christmas trees are becoming increasingly more susceptible to pests and pathogens due to climate change. In Canada, Christmas tree farms have shrunk by nearly 20,000 acres from 2011 to 2022.
For the farmers in the Morvan, this all means they work longer, more strenuous hours. The farmers I interviewed also noted that several insurance companies now refuse to insure their trees, deeming it too risky with the changing weather. Garnier was one of many farmers who paid the price. “Every tree was ruined,” she said, speaking of that June hailstorm. “I’ll never recuperate all the money I lost.”
Though Christmas tree farmers are victims of climate change, some do have a history of harming their local environments by overusing pesticides and herbicides that can run into waterways and growing monocrops that hurt biodiversity. This is an issue worldwide and part of the tensions in the Morvan.
There, the farmers I met have been trying to do better—to grow organically and diversely. Over the past 20 years, they’ve invested in new agricultural methods that protect the environment and their bottom line. What about the other industries that profit off the holidays that aren’t even trying to improve their practices? Shouldn’t they get some attention, instead?
“Why don’t people focus on the perfume industry’s crops? What about the toy industry that uses plastics? What about the carbon footprint of traveling during the holidays?” said Laurent Cottin, an organic Christmas tree farmer in the Morvan. “Why do we get cast as the villains?”
The holidays are a time of waste and consumption. There are the gifts we buy, the food we cook—and, yes, the trees we decorate. Growing up in Western Canada, the holidays have always been a chance for me to reconnect with nature: to wander through the mountains with snowshoes strapped to my feet, to collect pine cones from the frosty forest floors. Equally, the holidays have also been a time of great consumption: of increased spending, eating, and traveling. Something I, like many, am trying to change.
For the ethical consumer, the type of tree they buy is important. Several outlets from CNN to The Washington Post have rushed to answer readers’ questions about the environmental impacts of Christmas trees. Are real trees the enemy? Or artificial ones?
Well, the answer is “not straightforward,” according to Ian Rotherham, an ecologist and historian for Sheffield Hallam University who has written about the carbon footprint of Christmas trees. “It depends largely on what you are doing.”
In general, real trees are better for the environment than artificial ones because of the carbon footprint associated with producing and shipping artificial trees, which often come from China. Artificial trees are made of plastic (aka fossil fuels), and they wind up in landfills after families are done with them. In fact, a 6.5-foot artificial tree has roughly double the carbon footprint of a real tree. But that doesn’t mean all natural trees are great. How and where they are grown, as well as how they are disposed, affect their overall footprints.
It may seem intuitive that chopping down tens of millions of trees is bad—but not necessarily. Trees are renewable; more can always be planted. Plus, Christmas trees are generally grown on agricultural land that may otherwise be used for crops, such as cotton, that have less carbon sequestration capacity and require more water. Though the exact amount of carbon dioxide absorbed by a Christmas tree depends on the species, popular varieties, such as spruce, absorb more carbon than the average tree.
Where real trees can become problematic is when they are grown in precious ecosystems such as peat bogs, which are a valuable carbon sink. Two years ago, the U.K. government came under fire for allowing farmers to plant their trees on peatland—a move local conservationists called “heartbreaking.” Issues also arise if trees post-holidays are sent to landfills, where they decompose and release greenhouse gases. Some 10 million trees are estimated to hit landfills every year. Then, their carbon footprint can increase to more than 30 pounds of carbon dioxide when they could be composted or converted to wood chips, instead. Christmas trees can also be harmful when they are grown as monocrops and with excessive use of pesticides.
Depending on how they are grown, Christmas trees can be either environmental hazards capable of destroying local biodiversity—or organic carbon sinks sucking excessive greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. “This isn’t black or white,” Rotherham said.
This is the battle unfolding in the Morvan, where local environmentalists have decried the use of pesticides. There, the farmers have embraced change, but has it come too late? Or, as the saying goes, are activists missing the forest for the trees?
Up until the early 2000s, farmers in the Morvan relied heavily on pesticides and other agrochemicals. It was around this time, after all, that the term “organic” entered the mainstream. In 2002, the farmers decided to make a change. The French government’s regulations on the Christmas tree industry didn’t come until a year later. The tree farmers pooled their resources to hire Vincent Houis, a local agricultural engineer, and named him as the head of the French Association for Natural Christmas Trees. The community brought him in to find alternatives to using agrochemicals.
The chemicals used to keep pests and weeds away from the trees can harm local water sources. A 2004 study revealed that Christmas tree production in the Morvan was linked to water contamination. The Regional Health Agency also found traces of a potentially carcinogenic herbicide in a small town in 2010 before the substance was banned in France. The region is known for its high rainfall, which can transport pesticides and herbicides more easily into local watersheds. This reality has fueled local opposition to Christmas tree farms in the Morvan.
The farmers still there today remember this use of agrochemicals, but they’ve improved their practices since then. Garnier, for instance, went to Norway 10 years ago to receive training on alternative practices—both for the sake of the environment and for the health of her workers who used to handle these chemicals daily. Learning the details of regenerative farming has been an ongoing effort since 2002.
Now, farmers use less pesticides or none at all. They have sheep to help with the weeds. They’ve diversified the kinds of trees they grow, sometimes alongside fruits like tomatoes and blueberries. Some are even certified organic.
“If you had mentioned organic trees here when I first started working, people would have laughed,” said Marie-Christine Grosche, a Christmas tree producer in the region. “Now, we have several organic farmers operating in the region and many more who are interested in transitioning.”
Cottin, who was one of the first organic Christmas tree farmers in the region, believes that organic Christmas tree farming “is the future.” He not only refuses to put pesticides on his trees—he also rejects orders from customers who live beyond a two-hour drive from his home. “It’s idiotic to drive across the country to sell trees when there are local farmers there,” he said, noting the carbon footprint. “I believe in organic products, and I believe in selling locally.”
Despite these improvements, Christmas tree farmers have faced increased criticism over the past five years.
The Morvan Collective, a group of roughly a hundred locals, has repeatedly spoken out over the use of pesticides, which the group argues has leached into local rivers. The collective’s members said they have witnessed the river pollution and its havoc on local birds and insects with their own eyes.
“Monocultures and pesticide usage is bad for the environment, and we’re feeling the impacts,” said Muriel André-Petident, a local farmer and spokesperson of the Morvan Collective. “It’s the Wild West out here.”
The half a dozen Christmas tree farmers interviewed for this story denied the group’s accusations. While Houis admitted that there are “some bad apples” who abuse pesticides, he also said it’s unfair that advocates cast over a hundred different farmers as villains when they have been working to adopt more sustainable practices. “There is a huge misunderstanding of what we do,” he said.
The farmers are confused as to why the criticism is coming now when their agricultural practices are more sustainable than they have ever been. They also do not understand why trees, in particular, have become such a point of tension for environmentalists. In France and the U.S., Christmas tree farming makes up less than 1% of agricultural land. The practice can also capture carbon more efficiently than other smaller crops that could take the trees’ place. The presence of Christmas trees in the region has even been associated with a rise of sparrows, woodlarks, linnets, and ladybugs, according to an industry-led study.
In light of all these changes, farmers wonder from where community members are drawing these conclusions.
“We have asked the collective to come speak with us and to show us their evidence,” Houis said. “But they refuse.”
André-Petident said the Morvan Collective does not want to meet with farmers because they fear doing so would give the public the impression that they are on the same page “It’s bad optics,” she said.
Though there have been a few studies investigating the group’s concerns, a big problem is that much of their evidence is anecdotal, rather than peer-reviewed—a common issue when small communities suffer environmental pollution at the hands of an economically powerful industry. “We have a big problem getting numbers to prove what we are saying,” André-Petident said.
What the collective wants is for the trees to be grown organically. Only then would they be open to discuss the continuation of Christmas tree farming in the region.
But not all farmers have the resources to transition to organic, particularly as climate change creates financial strains. Garnier, who lost all her crops to the hail in June, does not think she can afford such a risk. “It just isn’t possible,” she said.
Christmas tree farmers in the Morvan—and around the world—are watching as their crops and revenue take a hit due to climate change. Over the past decades, Christmas tree farmers in the U.S. and Canada have reported significant losses due to extreme heat, droughts, and floods. In 2021 alone, extreme heat damaged roughly 10% of the mature Christmas trees in the Pacific Northwest, contributing to a Christmas tree shortage and hike in prices across the U.S. The ongoing shortage drove up prices for shoppers this year.
“We work all the time now, and we are not making more money,” said Grosche, noting she and her husband have decided to slowly close down their business. For them, the decision to close is a painful one: Christmas tree farming has long been a family tradition.
“I loved everything about this [profession],” Grosche said. “But with climate change, I would never encourage my kids to take it up.”
When I called tree farmers from the Morvan for this story, few wanted to speak with me. Some hung up when they heard I was a journalist. “We’ve been burned before,” Grosche explained.
In recent years, journalists have reported that an overwrought Christmas tree industry has destroyed the local environment, citing the Morvan Collective. They reported that monocrops are destroying biodiversity and leading to the extinction of certain bee and bird species.
These images populated my mind as I prepared my reporting trip to the region. But as I drove into the Morvan on a foggy Saturday morning in early December, a different scene emerged. Where I expected to see monocrops run by industrial companies, I found independent farmers with small plots of Christmas trees where wildflowers outnumbered the firs. Where I anticipated to find devastated landscapes, I heard birds chirping. Where I assumed I’d find pesticide-laden trees, I found a growing number of organic Christmas tree farmers setting up shop.
Of course, not all environmental destruction can be seen by the naked eye. Important research gaps remain to fully understand how the Christmas tree industry is affecting local environments. But what I witnessed and heard revealed a tendency to want to tell simplistic stories about the environment, one that has clear villains and victims and yes or no answers.
“It’s very easy to pick on people like Christmas tree growers in a fairly naive way,” Rotherham said. “The environmentalists that tend to focus on lifestyle choices—like what tree to buy—are often affluent and middle class. They want to feel good about the things they buy.” He adds, “but they don’t always want to look at the bigger picture.”
“It’s already stressful because of climate change. And with these outsiders now criticizing us, I’m almost relieved to be closing my business.”
Rotherham believes independent Christmas tree farmers are wrongly targeted for responding to a market demand driven by a highly consumerist society that has turned Christmas into a time of excessive spending, overeating, and travel. He wonders why the farmers are critiqued instead of the consumers.
“If we want to address the environmental impact of Christmas, we need to reconsider the value system behind it,” he said, noting this requires digging much deeper than simply measuring an industry’s carbon footprint.
Many Christmas tree farmers I met said the “constant stream of attacks,” as Grosche put it, hasn’t encouraged them to rethink their agricultural practices. Instead, this has them questioning whether they wanted to keep working in the industry at all.
“I picked this career because I was passionate about it, like all farmers are,” said Garnier, who moved to the Morvan in her early twenties from the French city Lyon. “But between climate change and the growing criticism thrown our way, I’m starting to question it.”
Garnier is not the only one who feels this way.
“Each year, we put everything on the table—we gamble,” Grosche said. “It’s already stressful because of climate change. And with these outsiders now criticizing us, I’m almost relieved to be closing my business.”
Houis, who leads the national tree association, feels similarly. “We spend years trying to improve our practices, and this is the response,” he said. “Sometimes, I wonder, What’s the point?”
As I drove home from the Morvan, I reflected on how, when faced with the unimaginable crisis that is climate change, so many of us hone in on what we can control: our lifestyles, our habits, our purchases. We try to simplify the situation by searching for right and wrong, by looking for environmental heroes and foes. We calculate our carbon footprints far from the frontlines of those already feeling the climate crisis. We think the best way to express our values is through what we do (and don’t) buy.
I went to the Morvan in search of a simple answer to a complicated question: are Christmas trees bad for the environment? I left wondering whether this was the right question to ask at all.