By Ellen Powell, VDOF Conservation Education Coordinator
Early Tuesday morning, a team of foresters gathered at Claybrooke Farm near Mineral to collect a special gift – the 2020 State Capitol Christmas tree.
The approximately 25-foot Norway spruce donated by the Carroll family will be displayed outside on the Capitol portico. This year’s tree lighting ceremony was closed to the public due to COVID concerns, but you can view the tree from a distance throughout the holiday season.
VDOF’s Jefferson work team members Michael Downey, Jonah Fielding, and David Powell, along with State Forester Rob Farrell, assisted with felling, loading, and transporting the tree to Richmond.
Locating and delivering the Capitol tree is an annual event for VDOF. About this time of year, many of us who work in the forestry field hear the question, “Isn’t it wasteful to cut down a tree just for Christmas?” The short answer is, “No!” The longer answer highlights the advantages of using real trees.
Christmas trees are a crop, just like corn or soybeans. Christmas tree growers simply harvest their crop less often – every 7 years, on average. While the trees are growing, they are sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, and they store that carbon until they biodegrade – a nice benefit for a warming planet.
Christmas trees are also recyclable. Many localities chip the trees into mulch, to use in city landscaping or give away to citizens. Trees can be used to start brush piles for wildlife, or sunk in ponds to provide fish habitat. In some areas, recycled Christmas trees have stabilized stream banks or provided a foundation for new sand dunes along the coast.
By buying a locally grown tree, you support Virginia agriculture and your local economy. To help you find one, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services maintains a list of Virginia Christmas tree growers. Another option for a real tree is to use all or part of an evergreen from your yard that needs to come down. Planning ahead may even allow you to donate your tree to a local organization or municipality.
The weather was clear and cool for the evening event, and students from the orchestra at the Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School provided the musical backdrop. The roughly 20-foot Colorado blue spruce stood tall between pillars in the portico at the Capitol Square and had been trimmed with multi-colored lights.
First Lady Pamela Northam gave the opening remarks, followed by Secretary Bettina Ring and Governor Ralph Northam, who both acknowledged the Braunworth/Crickenberger family for the donated tree.
The tree lights turned on smoothly to the applause of attendees, and much of the crowd headed to the adjacent Executive Mansion to greet the Governor, observe the interior holiday decor and hear the student orchestra continue to play.
Each year, a live Virginia-grown tree is selected and harvested by the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) to serve as the Christmas tree on display at Virginia’s Capitol in Richmond. The annual Christmas trees are donated from tree farmers across state; this year, the tree selected was a roughly 20-foot Colorado blue spruce, donated by Helen Braunworth and Helen’s daughter and son-in-law Cindy and Wayne Crickenberger from Friendly Forest Farm – a certified Tree Farm in Augusta County. The tree is donated in honor of Helen and her late husband William “Bill” Braunworth.
Trees have historically been donated from tree farms in different regions of the state, but finding the right tree usually comes down to the tree farmers working with their local forester. Patti Nylander is a senior area forester in VDOF’s Western Region. Patti has developed a close working relationship with the Braunworth/Crickenberger family, and when it came time to identify the 2019 tree, Patti reached out to Cindy and Wayne to tour their properties in search of the perfect specimen.
Chris Thomsen (regional forester) says it may be easy to underestimate the relationships between foresters and landowners, but foresters are an essential contact for tree farmers and forest landowners; foresters are key players in supporting forest economy and management in our commonwealth. It’s this relationship that gave Patti the access and knowledge to find the right tree on the Friendly Forest Farm property – a substantial Colorado blue spruce that was likely planted more than 20 years ago.
On November 25, a harvest team assembled on the Braunworth property in Augusta County. The team consisted of Patti Nylander, Chris Thomsen, Brad Carrico (deputy regional forester) and Cole Young (forest technician). Wayne Crickenberger was tasked with felling the tree, with his wife Cindy and the VDOF staff there for preparations and logistics.
The process of cutting, wrapping and transporting a tree of this size is no simple task; the team had to plan their approach and prepare supplies in advance. First, the team unfurled a tarp and cut baling rope that would be used to wrap the tree, similarly to how a Christmas tree would be baled before being loaded onto someone’s car, except this tree was 12 to 15 feet wide!
Next, Wayne used a chainsaw to clear away the dead, low branches on the spruce. Then two smaller trees that blocked access to the selected tree were removed. WHSV reporter John Hood was on site reporting on the tree harvest and was allowed to take the smaller “Christmas tree” to the WHSV office.
Wayne cut the tree, with Brad’s strategic guidance to ensure the tree fell appropriately onto the tarp and rope for baling. Once the tree was felled, the team worked quickly to wrap the tree.
Wayne expertly navigated a tractor to carry the tree to the driveway, where VDOF’s flatbed truck was waiting. The tree was lifted and positioned on the truck bed and secured for the eventual long journey to Richmond.
The tree will be housed in a garage at the Augusta Forestry Center in Crimora, Virginia, until December 2, when it will be delivered by flatbed to Richmond. Once it arrives there, a crew will lift the tree with a crane and set it in place on the portico at the Capitol building in preparation for a tree lighting ceremony with Governor Northam on December 5, which the Braunworth/Crickenberger family plans to attend. Stay tuned for photo updates!
Friendly Forest Farm is one of three tree farms owned by Helen Braunworth in Augusta County. Bill Braunworth was a dedicated tree farmer for more than 60 years; according to the family, Bill was responsible for hundreds of acres of planted trees and active forest and tree farm management in three states – New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Bill was recognized as a strong advocate for forest landowners and active forest management. He worked to demonstrate and facilitate sustainable forestry practices, soil conservation and water quality improvement on his own property and on public lands when the opportunity allowed.
Though the family no longer sells Christmas trees, the legacy of the farms stands strong; the properties are still treed with seedlings planted by Bill, and the family finds great importance in keeping the land in forest and out of development. Bill’s son-in-law Wayne believes he’d be delighted to know that a tree from his farm would stand at the Capitol.
According to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS), there are nearly 500 farms across Virginia where Christmas trees are grown. In fact, Virginia is the seventh leading state in terms of total Christmas trees harvested. The most common types of trees sold as Christmas trees in Virginia include balsam fir, Douglas fir, Fraser fir, noble fir, Scotch pine, Virginia pine and white pine. The Christmas tree industry is a strong contributor to our agricultural economy, with annual sales of Virginia Christmas trees around $10 million. This industry, built around important holiday traditions, is an opportunity to support Virginian agricultural businesses.
Real trees are also an opportunity to support sustainable business; Virginia-grown trees are renewable and recyclable (unlike artificial trees) and growers typically plant two to three seedlings for every tree that is cut.
VDACS says that the supply for real Christmas trees is a little tight this year, but no one needs to worry about walking away empty handed – there is a real Christmas tree for everyone in 2019.
Some of the information in this post was sourced from the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and from personal correspondence from the Braunworth/Crickenberger family to VDOF and the media in November, 2019.
We expect to see Christmas trees at Christmas tree farms, but this decorated eastern red cedar is located on the edge of a 2-year old pine plantation.
On a recent rainy day, the bald eagle below appeared to be hunting in a clearcut.
One of my favorite things about this time of year on the Middle Peninsula is hearing the tundra swans fly overhead. A bald eagle’s call is quite the contrast. Listen here.
The bald eagle population has made a notable recovery since DDT was banned [Richmond Times article], and we see them quite often in the Chesapeake Bay region. With 272 breeding pairs along the James River in 2017, that eagle population appears to be reaching carrying capacity. The next time you hear that unique bird call, look up and you may see a bald eagle.
Several years ago, as I was driving along Route 30 towards West Point, I saw an eagle steal a dead opossum from a group of vultures on the side of the road. Much to my surprise, it tried to make its getaway straight towards my car. At the last minute, it dropped the opossum on the road directly in front of me in order to clear the roof of my car. I was very relieved that I did not hit the eagle or the opossum.