Welcome to the new tradition of Christmas tree shortages
Fewer trees are being planted, as increasingly extreme weather also takes its toll
With reports of tree shortages across Canada this year, the Christmas tree industry is warning that low inventory could become an issue every holiday season.
"It's not gonna get easier for the foreseeable future," said Shirley Brennan, the executive director of the Canadian Christmas Trees Association, which represents hundreds of tree farmers across the country.
Sales of Canadian Christmas trees have been growing by about 15 per cent a year since 2015, said Brennan.
And unless demand falls off, a Christmas tree shortage is likely to continue because fewer trees are being planted and climate change is affecting their growth and survival.
"I can see it being ongoing," said Alison McCrindle, co-owner of Chickadee Christmas Trees in Puslinch, Ont.
An anxious Nevesha Persad Maharaj was at Chickadee for the farm's opening day on Nov. 26 — much earlier than her family had ever shopped for a tree.
"We came out a couple of weeks earlier and, even for us, we were thinking it was a little bit late," she said.
One possibly worrisome sign for the future: The current shortage forced Ikea Canada to abandon its practice of selling live trees this year, because the retailer said it was "unable to secure the necessary local supply."
Less land for Christmas trees
Canada exports about 49 per cent of the Christmas trees grown here — and most of the trees that end up in Canadian homes are homegrown, said Brennan. Quebec grows the most Christmas trees in the country by far, followed by Nova Scotia, Ontario and New Brunswick.
The problem is that over time, the amount of land dedicated to Christmas tree production has been shrinking.
In 2011, there were just under 2,400 Christmas tree farms in Canada, with about 28,000 hectares (69,000 acres) of land under cultivation, according to Statistics Canada data. By 2016, the number of farms totalled just under 1,900, with around 24,000 hectares (59,000 acres) of land under cultivation.
Brennan said she expects to see a decline again in 2021, when updated figures are released in the spring.
"Because we're losing acreage, we're losing trees. It's, on average, about 1,000 trees per acre," said Brennan. "So if we've lost 10,000 acres in five years, we've lost a lot of opportunities to plant trees."
If the decline noted between 2011 and 2016 is shown to have continued, Canada would have 20 million fewer Christmas trees in the ground in 2021 than it did a decade ago.
What's happening with the land
One reason why there's less land being used to grow Christmas trees is because a number of tree farms are family businesses, said Brennan, and the average grower is between 70 and 75.
Growing trees isn't easy and when a farmer's children aren't interested in taking over, the land may be turned to other uses or not farmed at all, she said.
Matt Wright has been growing Christmas trees for more than 40 years in New Germany, N.S., and says he and many of his fellow farmers "have grown old together."
He estimates the amount of land growing Christmas trees in his province has gone down by 15 to 20 per cent in the last 10 years because of retirements.
In Ontario, McCrindle sees land prices as a potential problem for bringing in new farmers or starting new ones.
"The price of land is expensive," she said. "So perhaps people aren't aren't going to grow Christmas trees if they can't afford to be doing that on the land."
WATCH | Why Canadians may find Christmas trees in short supply this year:
Climate change hurting trees
After the year that was 2021, B.C. tree farmer Arthur Loewen says he's really seen it all.
Last month, the 80-year-old founder of Pine Meadows Tree Farms, in Chilliwack, B.C., said he saw some of his mature trees immersed in four feet of floodwaters, young trees completely submerged and seedlings swept away.
But it was this summer's heat dome that did the most damage, burning new growth on the family-owned farm.
"They can't take that heat; it wasn't 30 degrees — it was 45," he said. "And some of those [trees] are probably not going to recover."
B.C. isn't the only province seeing weather wreak havoc on tree crops. In recent years, both Nova Scotia and Quebec have been hit by frosts in June, killing spring buds. Less snowfall and high winds in winter add to the issues, drying trees out.
Climate change poses an ongoing threat to Canada's Christmas tree farms, according to Sean Fox, horticulture manager at the University of Guelph Arboretum.
"Stresses can compound, so year after year, when you're seeing different extremes, it can really be a heavy hit," he said.
Like most plants, Christmas trees thrive in consistent climate conditions, said Fox. Increasingly unpredictable weather over the 10 to 12 years it takes a Christmas tree to reach harvest means fewer trees are likely to be good enough for sale.
For growers, that's "something that certainly could keep you up at night," said Fox, and consumers may be forced to "lower their standards."
Adaptation ahead for industry
Brennan said the Christmas tree industry is trying to attract new farmers and better share best practices — like pruning techniques after a frost — that may help growers adapt to climate change.
In the future, Canadian growers might also reduce exports, holding back more trees for the local market.
That's what one grower in New Brunswick did this year with his limited crop, after overcutting last year to meet demand.
It's "a very fine line" for growers who export to allocate inventory to both long-term American clients and local buyers, said Brennan, adding: "I know that more and more, growers are balancing out their sales."
In Ontario, tree shopper Ben Cliff and his sons found they've had to adapt as well — at least this season. Their holiday tree-cutting tradition ended this year with the family buying a pre-cut tree, three feet shorter than they wanted.
"Selection this year seems about the lowest that we've seen for the 18 years that we've been cutting down trees," he said.