A Leaburg Christmas tree grower is offering a new choice at lots this holiday season: trees bearing a "sustainably grown" tag.
Whitewater Ranch, which grows Christmas trees on 120 acres in the McKenzie River area, is the only grower in Lane County to be certified "sustainable" under a new program developed with the help of Oregon State University Extension.
The Socially and Environmentally Responsible Farm, or SERF, certification is granted to farms that meet a broad range of social and environmental standards regarding biodiversity, soil and water resource management, integrated pest management, worker health and safety, and consumer and community relations.
Five Oregon growers, including Whitewater Ranch, earned the certification this year, and extension and industry officials are hopeful that more will meet the program standards next year.
"I would expect more growers to join these kinds of efforts," said Bryan Ostlund, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association in Salem.
The program especially would appeal to growers who sell their trees directly to consumers and to growers who sell to large retailers, such as Home Depot or Walmart, who look for vendors with these kinds of certifications, he said.
"A SERF-certified tree assures you that this real tree is grown using the best and safest methods known," said Chal Landgren, a Christmas tree specialist with OSU Extension who helped create the program.
Whitewater Ranch was eager to participate because "it's kind of the way we run our business anyway, and we thought maybe it will give us a little edge in the marketplace," manager Lorin Zastoupil said.
Whitewater didn't have to change any of its practices to qualify for certification, he said.
"We're right on the McKenzie River, and almost enough said right there," Zastoupil said. "If we have a problem here - we just can't have a problem here because we have a couple of miles along the McKenzie River bank, and the McKenzie River is a big deal.
"For us the decision was made long ago that we're going to go above and beyond making sure we used the proper sprays and materials," Zastoupil said. "We banned helicopter spraying (15) years ago because of the liability of 'What if some of it ends up in the river?' "
To be certified, the farm had to document in detail its practices regarding such matters as erosion control and pest management, complete several days of training and pass an inspection by state Department of Agriculture officials, he said.
"There's more record keeping involved," Zastoupil said. "You have to cross your t's and dot your i's."
But it doesn't cost Whitewater Ranch much more to raise trees this way, he said.
Noble firs for sale at Spring Creek Holly Farm in Leaburg, which is Whitewater Ranch's sister farm and also owned by the Haake family, were priced at $4 a foot - no higher than when the trees weren't certified.
Zastoupil said he hopes shoppers eventually will be willing to pay a bit more for a certified tree. But for now, his goal is to move his trees in a glutted market. Whitewater Ranch also sells its trees locally at Bo's Christmas tree lots at the Albertsons stores in the Mohawk area of Springfield and the Barger area of Eugene.
So far, shoppers seem responsive, Zastoupil said.
"Locally, response has been positive, but Eugene is that kind of town, so one would fully expect that," he said.
Marilyn and Tom Keller, who live near the Spring Creek Holly Farm, paid $28 for their 7-foot noble fir.
Marilyn Keller noticed the tags on the trees but said she had never heard of SERF certification.
"I don't guess I would drive clear across town for a SERF tree," she said. But she and her husband were pleased with the tree they chose, its price and being able to pick up a tree so close to home.
Zastoupil said he's not sure whether SERF certification will catch on in the industry overall.
But if Whitewater sells more trees because the farm is certified, "I'm sure that many more will get on the bandwagon," he said.
Christmas trees are a big business in Oregon - the nation's top producer. Oregon growers sold 6.4 million trees last year, grossing revenues of $91 million, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.
About 8 percent of the trees grown in the Pacific Northwest stay in the region. The other 92 percent are shipped out of the area - 45 percent of them to California, 16 percent to Mexico and the remainder to a variety of destinations, including Hawaii and Saudi Arabia.
Whitewater's Zastoupil said misconceptions still abound about how and where Christmas trees are grown.
"We still get people who ask us, 'Do you cut these off the tops of trees in the forest?' " he said.
SERF certification is an opportunity to spread the word that "we're doing this right," Zastoupil said. "That we're good, conscientious farmers taking care of our land."
SERF certification follows an earlier program called the Coalition of Environmentally Conscious Growers, which was created by four Oregon tree growers in 2007.
Whitewater Ranch also is a member of the coalition.
These growers were eager to launch a certification program in part because big-box retailers were making indications that they would require certification.
The coalition requires independent third-party inspection by a Seattle firm.
Zastoupil, said he thinks SERF, with the state Department of Agriculture inspection, carries more weight.
"When it's all said and done I think SERF will be the reigning certification," he said.
"I don't know that for sure," Zastoupil added. "But it's kind of we don't need both."
Requirements of a new sustainable certification:
Protect and promote biodiversity. Farms must show that they protect natural features, waterways, fish and wildlife habitat and ensure that workers and equipment minimize harm to biodiversity.
Use appropriate Integrated Pest Management. Farms must use least-toxic methods to control insects, weeds, diseases and other pests, and provide training.
Create a safe environment for all workers. Certification requires health and safety training for employees and evaluating and reducing risks.
Actively engage in long-term conservation of soil and water resources. Certified farms must use practices to prevent soil erosion and reduce potential negative impact on water quality.