Christmas-tree shortage has roots in the 2008 financial meltdown

Debate may rage over the ideal variety, the proper height and even the colour of a Christmas tree. There will be those convinced that in days of yore they paid considerably less for a real tree, which years ago was much easier to find.

At this time of year, Christmas trees are top of mind, a focus of the family room and, according to those who make a living with a saw, a bail of twine and a little elbow grease, very much in demand.

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Christmas-tree growers around the Island and across the country have been doing a booming business this year, taking advantage of a surge in demand for real trees and a shortage of supply of the fragrant timber that lights up the festive season.

Joan Fleming, who has operated the Saanichton Christmas Tree Farm for the past 50 years, said she has had a steady stream of business through her gates, with serious surges of people on the weekends since opening Nov. 23.

Mark Montgomery, owner of Highlands Home Farm, was blitzed and sold out of all his trees last weekend — the only two days he decided to open this year.

Meanwhile, grocery stores have fewer trees available in their temporary pens, and fundraising groups who buy from tree wholesalers each year to support their causes have reported trouble getting the number of trees they need to make their budgets.

“There’s definitely a shortage this year, all across Canada,” said Shirley Brennan, executive director of the Canadian Christmas Tree Growers Association.

Brennan said there’s a number of reasons for this year’s shortage, but it’s different in every region of the country.

The shortage owes something to the 2008 financial crisis, which put thousands of Christmas tree farmers in North America out of business. That meant fewer seedlings planted that year, and considering Christmas trees take about 10 years to mature from seedlings, it translates into fewer trees available for sale today.

Brennan said in B.C., which tends to import a lot of trees from Washington state and Oregon, the loss of tree farms in Canada and the U.S., a reduction in the number of seedlings planted and hot dry summers that affected the development of young trees all combined to reduce supply.

“And in B.C. the price of land has skyrocketed so people couldn’t buy extra land to increase production so they can’t keep up with demand,” she said, adding tough financial times meant many farmers couldn’t afford to take the risk to plant more seedlings or invest in irrigation systems to deal with the heat.

The result of the shortage, she said, was by August of this year tree wholesalers in North America filled all the orders they could handle.

“In some provinces, to accommodate as many customers as possible, they shorted some of the orders, so some sellers who ordered 200 trees may only have gotten 175,” she said.

The result of all of that was increased tree prices, limited numbers of trees at some re-sellers and crazy weekends at U-cut tree lots.

“That’s because we’ve also gone from being a $53-million industry five years ago to a $100-million industry now, the increase has been huge, the demand is huge,” she said. “Really it’s good news, this year’s shortage is just a setback.”

The increase in demand might be due in part to consumers becoming more aware of their carbon footprint, as natural trees often grow locally and in the new year are turned into mulch and used again.

While growing, real trees also absorb carbon dioxide and other gases and emit oxygen.

At the same time, artificial trees are often not recyclable and are manufactured with PVC, which releases carcinogens during manufacturing and disposal.

According to Statistics Canada, Canada imported $61 million worth of artificial trees, $59.5 million of which came from China, in 2016. In that same year, Canada exported $43 million worth of Christmas trees around the world, almost all of it to the U.S.

“Demand is high, people want the real ones these days,” said Montgomery, whose property is about 40 acres, though only about five are used for the farm.

Montgomery said since buying his farm in 2012, they have seen strong, steady growth in demand, from selling 60 trees their first year to about 150 last year.

“One year a few years ago we sold so many in one weekend that we realized if we stayed open in December we would be cleaned out,” he said.

Since that year they have opened just one weekend in December each year, which he said has led to bedlam at the farm when the gates finally open.

“It is just chaos,” he said. “It is a crazy weekend, and a real neat event. We get whole families there, kids, grandparents and they wander all over the place and cut one tree. We serve hot chocolate, we always have a bonfire and we’ll see people here for a couple of hours.”

Montgomery said he sold about 70 trees this year, down from last year’s 150.

That low figure was by design as he has trees of all ages maturing on the lot and he’s “not anxious to be completely wiped out.”

He has even considered not opening next year to give the trees another year to mature.

“If I don’t have 50 trees [ready] I may not open,” he said.

Fleming, who has watched generations of families come out to the farm year after year, said the appeal of the natural trees goes beyond the plant itself.

“They have so much fun going out in our field, choosing a tree and cutting it down ... they leave here tickled pink because they know they are getting a fresh tree.”

She said she has seen a steady increase in demand each year, and this year she expects to sell several hundred.

“We have been so busy, I hope we don’t run out,” she said.

Like many farmers, Fleming uses a stump culture system to grow trees.

She instructs would-be lumberjacks to leave two branches at the base of the tree they have picked and let a new tree grow from that stump.

When the new lead shoot starts to grow and is about a foot long, the two branches are trimmed off.

“The new tree will grow from that stump twice as fast as a seedling,” she said. “We can get a seven- or eight-foot tree in 31/2 to 4 years — that makes a huge difference.”

That time difference means money in the bank.

According to the U.S. National Christmas Tree Association, the average price of a tree rose 123 per cent to $78 US in 2018 from $35 in 2013. The estimated increase in price in Canada has been about 15 per cent annually for the past five years.

aduffy@timescolonist.com

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