ROCHESTER, Ill. -- It's not reindeer doing the lion's share of work at Hubbell's Grove Christmas tree farm. It's praying mantises.
Through three seasons every year, praying mantises feast on insects bent on devouring Christmas trees. No chemical insecticides, herbicides or fertilizers are used at Hubbell's so the task of protecting trees falls to the beautiful and voracious mantis. Their long, elegant bodies pose motionless, just waiting for an unsuspecting insect to come within range.
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By late autumn, their job protecting the rolling 29-acre farm and its nearly 4,000 Christmas trees is done. At the end of her life, the female mantis deposits up to 400 eggs in a foamy case attached to a Christmas tree. The cases solidify and remain through winter looking like tiny, glistening tree ornaments.
Farm owner Marvin Hubbell, 62, is a scientist who knows the value of the mantis. With degrees in zoology and biology, he works by day with U.S. Soil and Water Conservation in environmental restoration.
He started the tree farm 30 years ago to help his two young daughters, then 2 and 6, form a bond with nature. Each spring since 1983, he has planted 500 to 1,000 new trees in rows on a contour across the hillside to minimize soil erosion.
"Even as a young boy, I had a sixth sense about chemical pesticides. I knew they were something to be avoided," Hubbell said. "Many Christmas tree farms start with a pre-emergent. Not here. Using pesticides is not worth it for me."
Most commercially sold Christmas trees in the United States are grown on farms using pesticides. Oregon is the leading Christmas tree-producing state, and atrazine is aerially applied there.
No independent, comprehensive studies are widely available on how much pesticide residue is released once a tree is set up in a warm home environment. However, atrazine and other endocrine-disrupting chemicals are nonmonotonic, meaning even at extremely low exposure levels, damage can occur.
Hubbell likes to point out there is no "dead zone" around his trees where all vegetation has been killed by chemical herbicides. Grasses and weeds grow right up to the trees and into the boughs. He does a lot of weed whacking to keep the growth down around the trees and mows minimally between rows.
If a tree does suffer insect damage, he'll cut it out rather than treat it with chemicals. When trees become so misshapen no one could love them, they're used to make fresh wreaths.
"People told me nothing would survive without chemical pesticides, but we have a survival rate of 85 to 90 percent," Hubbell said, noting this past summer was the lone exception. "The drought this past summer was the worst in my 30 years here, and we have no irrigation. We take what Mother Nature gives us. A big plus for us is all the microorganisms in this soil that retain moisture."
Hubbell sells white pines, Scotch pines, Austrian pines, balsam firs, Colorado blue spruces and concolor firs in sizes ranging up to 12 to 14 feet. Customers can cut their own tree, select a tree and ask Hubbell or another worker at the farm to cut it for them, or select a tree to purchase with the roots balled so the tree can be transplanted after the holidays.
In addition to trees and wreaths, customers can also get a sense of Hubbell's appreciation of nature.
Standing on the hillside surrounded by Christmas trees, customers can look out across a meadow to a windbreak of Washington Hawthorne trees cloaked with red berries that birds eat through winter. There are several swatches of silvery river birches and the west fork of the Sangamon River just below the bluff. In greens, reds and silvers, the landscape is a palette of Christmas even without snow.
Children are likely to hear Hubbell talk about the role praying mantises play on the farm. If customers select a tree with a mantis egg case, they can either take the egg case home and put it in their own garden, or leave it at the Christmas tree farm. (One year, an egg case slipped through unnoticed. When the tree was placed in a warm home, it didn't take long before hundreds of tiny, baby praying mantises started emerging.)
"Our heart and soul is families. We have several generations of some families coming back year after year," Hubbell said. "Folks can spend hours out here. Every family has their own routine. In some families, the kids choose the tree. In others, the parents do."
Hubbell favors a white pine tree but loves the smell of balsam fir. He advises customers to keep their fresh tree watered daily and never allow the cut portion to remain out of water.
He follows his own advice. After the holidays, he always takes his tree outside and tries to burn it, always without success.
"Our trees are too fresh ... if you don't let water go below the cut line," he said.
By late morning on a recent Saturday, Casey Vandenbergh, her husband Nick, who has completed two recent deployments with the U.S. Air Force, and their children Hayden, 6, Parker, 2 and MaKinley, 10 months, started searching for the perfect tree.
Casey Vandenbergh had been surprised one year to realize the tree she had purchased at a commercial lot had actually been dyed green. The family wanted a more natural experience.
Hayden and Parker picked out several 14-foot trees that were ruled too large by their parents. With a wry smile on his face, Hayden then stood before a tiny, lopsided white pine smaller than he was and suggested it should be the family's selected tree. It was passed by with barely a comment.
Within 30 minutes, the family had their tree, a dense, 8-foot white pine about 9 years old. All cut trees cost $42 at Hubbell's regardless of size.
Farm hand Tyler Nichols, 16, a junior at Williamsville High School, helped the family shake the tree of any loose needles (there were few) and tie it to the roof of their SUV for the drive home to Petersburg.
Tyler is one of about 40 high school students who have worked on the farm over the past three decades and who have received their first work experience with Hubbell -- a man incredibly patient with trees, young farm hands and children who can't quite decide which of the 4,000 trees on the farm is perfect for them.
Whether customers select a 12-foot white pine or a 3-foot concolor fir, Dale Goodner contends a chemical-free Christmas tree is the best way to celebrate the season.
"I like the symbolism of Christmas ... new life for a new growing season. Christmas is the perfect time to go chemical free," said Goodner, a retired naturalist with the Peoria Park District.
"Chemical pesticides are indiscriminate. They kill. They don't know when to stop killing. We are the collateral damage. The effects are slow and cumulative."
Unlike Hubbell who's always had an intuitive distrust of chemical pesticides, Goodner remembers as a child challenging his grandmother's decision to be chemical-free at her small orchard. He objected to eating apples that had worm damage.
His grandmother told him, "If worms won't eat an apple, maybe you shouldn't either."
Dr. Jason Rohr, a leading researcher on atrazine at University of South Florida, said while the effects on humans of atrazine use on Christmas trees is unclear, the evidence on fresh water amphibians and fish is very consistent -- and it's predominantly adverse.
"Christmas trees are a luxury, unlike food needed to sustain life," he said. "Production of Christmas trees can involve reduced pesticides if smaller trees are marketed and less intensive agricultural practices are followed."
Jay Feldman, executive director of the nonprofit Beyond Pesticides, said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not have data on the non-dietary off-gas residues that may occur from Christmas trees treated with pesticides.
"Given that we have not established the essentiality of these chemicals, there should be a much higher burden for justification of their continued use," Feldman said. "Agricultural production without these chemicals has proven to be a tremendous success yet chemical intensive farmers continue to say it can't be done."
Dr. David Rubin, an endocrinologist at Illinois State University, said, "If something is purposefully sprayed with pesticides, why bring it into the home and put it in front of little kids who are at the highest risk from exposure?"
Information from: The State Journal-Register, http://www.sj-r.com