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Forestry and Environmental Resources Research

Extension Teams Up with NC Family to Grow White House Christmas Tree

Christmas tree in the Blue Room of the White House - Extension Teams Up with NC Family to Grow White House Christmas Tree - College of Natural Resources News NC State University
This year’s official White House Christmas Tree was presented to the First Lady by siblings Amber Scott and Alex Church of Cline Church Nursery in North Carolina. ©

The towering Fraser fir that heralds the holidays in the Blue Room of the White House this year is more than the product of years of hard work by the North Carolina family that grew it. It is a prime example of what can happen when NC State’s Christmas Tree Extension Team partners with the growers, making North Carolina the second-most prolific Christmas tree harvesting state in the nation.

The 2023 official White House tree grower was selected in competition with growers from all over the country. Cline Church nursery in Ashe County won the competition and delivered the tree, all 18.5 feet of it, to First Lady Jill Biden in early December.

It’s the first time the Church family has provided the official White House tree, and the 15th time the honor has gone to a North Carolina grower. Last year, the family was selected to provide the tree for the Vice President’s residence. The White House usher and groundskeeper make a trip to the winning grower each year to select the Blue Room tree from their crop. 

Alex Church, who with his sister Amber Scott runs the family business their parents started in the 1970s, said the tree has to meet many requirements. It must be gorgeous from every angle, slender enough to fit into the center of the room, and strong enough to hold dozens of hand-selected ornaments. 

North Carolina is known for its native Fraser firs, which grow best in climates over 3,000 feet. Overall, more than 850 North Carolina growers produce about 50 million trees on 38,000-plus acres. More than a quarter of all Christmas trees grown in the United States are Fraser firs.

It took a large, dedicated village to make North Carolina so successful. It took decades of work, support and research by NC State’s researchers, the U.S. Forestry Service, state agriculture officials and the growers themselves to grow an industry that was virtually nonexistent until the 1950s.

Funded in large part by endowments established by NC’s Christmas tree growers — including one created by Cline Church and his wife, Ellen — NC State researchers have tackled numerous issues that threaten the trees, from disease and pests to human encroachment. NC State also helps with growth strategy, marketing and pre- and post-harvest retailing. The work has allowed farmers to grow more sustainably, produce trees in a shorter time, and cut the use of pesticides exponentially.

“Without NC State, I can tell you we would not be number two in the nation,” Cline Church said. “They played a big role in us being able to produce a tree that the public was very willing to buy. It’s folks like that who have pretty much dedicated their lives to our industry that have made us the strongest we’ve ever been.”

Justin Whitehill, an assistant professor and extension specialist in Christmas tree genetics and research lead for NC State’s Christmas Tree Genetics Program, credits the growers’ hard work and support, the popularity of Fraser firs and the work of the university’s team to manage pests and funguses, and genetics work that has, in effect, created a better, faster-growing Christmas tree.

The Church nursery is a member of the North Carolina Premium Fraser fir seed cooperative, created by NC State. “The cooperative, set up by my predecessor John Frampton, created the first round of genetically-improved trees, which were licensed out to growers. They have been using those trees for the last 10 to 15 years,” Whitehill said. 

Whitehill added, “It takes a long time to get trees to grow and produce their next generation of materials, but they’re finally doing that now and Cline Church and fellow growers have supported NC State and moved us forward.

Faster growing, pest-resistant, healthier trees mean more inventory and better sales for growers. It also helps keep fields viable and supports sustainable farming methods that are bringing “real” Christmas trees back into fashion since the pandemic, said Jamie Bookwalter, an NC State Extension Forestry specialist in mountain conifer pest management.

Success is measured in years in the tree-growing business, said Cline Church nursery’s Amber Scott. It is a competitive field, but also a collegial one. “Our crop is not something you plant and harvest in the same season. It’s all long-term. Everything we do is geared toward the long term,” she said. “So growers tend to work together. You know that whatever your neighbor’s problem is now, will become your problem. It works for all of us to collaborate.”

Scott believes the industry’s growing success also can be credited to the resources North Carolina dedicates to agriculture in the state. “Agriculture is the number one industry in our state,” she said. “It’s in the interest of not just western North Carolina but the whole state to invest time and energy into specialty crops like Christmas trees.”

Cline Church agrees. He and wife Ellen, and now their son and daughter, have “literally invested blood, sweat and tears” into the business since Cline Church planted his first seedling in high school. Hard work made a difference he said — but it’s not everything.

“Timing has been very important. The industry was growing at the same time we were,” he said. “We were just there at the right time. I can’t say we were smart enough to see the future, but NC State helped us get there.”

This story was written by Beth Grace for the NC State College of Natural Resources.