The dream of a no-mess Christmas tree is becoming a reality as Nova Scotia producers prepare to plant seedlings years in the making, but the research centre that made it happen is also preparing to close now that the project is complete.
Smart trees are engineered to hold on to their needles for up to three months. The technology developed by Dalhousie University researchers was officially licensed for commercial use last month, and seedlings are being distributed to growers who will begin planting in the spring.
Add this to an industry on the rise, and it's an exciting time to be a Christmas tree farmer in Nova Scotia, said Angus Bonnyman.
"This allows us to command a higher price with what's going on in the market now," said Bonnyman, executive director of the Christmas Tree Council of Nova Scotia. "If we can sell more trees, and also replace some of the alternatives, then that would lead to higher sales and better profits for our growers."
For the past several years, Dr. Raj Lada and his team at the Christmas Tree Research Centre in Bible Hill, N.S., have been replicating the traits of full, sturdy and great smelling trees that naturally hold onto their needles. They've also worked on a way to intercept the hormone that makes needles drop after harvest.
Centre set to close Dec. 31
Needle drop impacts about 30 per cent of trees, according to Lada, which means small, family-run farms often must ship extra trees to replace the ones that don't make it.
"We had somewhere close to about 100 to 200 per cent improvement, actually, from those selected parental material," he said.
But as exciting as the results are, it's bittersweet for Lada.
Now that the government-funded projects are complete, the centre is set to close its doors Dec. 31, he said.
Lada hopes to find someone who can bankroll the next era of Christmas tree research, but admits finding funding is one of the biggest challenges.
"It is so emotional to me, personally, actually because a lot of time has been spent in terms of establishing this centre and the projects," he said.
Out of lab, onto land
The seedlings and cell cultures developed by Lada and his team are being distributed to people like James DeLong, owner of DeLong Farms near New Germany, N.S.
DeLong is president of the SMART Christmas Tree Research Co-operative, a group of more than 100 producers who bought into the idea and are now prepared to reap the rewards.
But the long-time tree farmer, who is "knee-deep in the hoopla right now," said it's not all about making more money. His farm largely focuses on the local market.
"We here at DeLong Farms do not plan to sell them at a premium price, but we do plan to try to grow a better tree for our consumer," he said.
Trees shipped further afield
The Nova Scotia industry is doing well thanks to a decrease in supply south of the border, and some wholesale Christmas tree producers are even running out of trees.
Roughly 12,000 hectares of Christmas trees are in production in Nova Scotia. More than a million trees are exported every year, destined for living rooms in places such as the Caribbean, Panama and the U.S.
Bonnyman said with needles that hold on longer, trees can be shipped even further afield.
The industry is now valued at about $52 million annually, according to figures from the Christmas Tree Council of Nova Scotia.
But Bonnyman said you won't see smart trees at your local Christmas tree lot next year.
"It's not like growing carrots. There's quite a long time horizon, so we're looking to get these seedlings into the ground and be able to see the benefits in years in the future."