N.B. Christmas tree farmers focus on local market as demand surges
Christmas 2021 shaping up to be one of the best years ever for industry
Christmas tree farmers are scrambling so fast to meet demand this year — their busiest season in memory — that they've been forced to turn down big buyers from outside New Brunswick.
The stepped-up demand comes at a time when supply is not at its usual strength.
"Mad scramble, I think that's the word," said Laura Folkins of L&R Evergreens Ltd. of Kierstead Mountain, about 20 kilometres northwest of Sussex. She and her husband, Raymond, farm about 30 acres of Christmas trees.
"Every day we were receiving a phone call, people from all across Canada and [across] the states looking for 200 to 500 trees or a full trailer load, which could be up to 700 trees," said Folkins.
She's had to turn them all down.
It's the same in the community of Hoyt, about 55 kilometres south of Fredericton.
"On the world market right now and in the states there is a tree shortage, it's no secret," said David Kirkpatrick, a third- generation Christmas tree farmer at Lo-Hi Christmas Tree Farm.
Kirkpatrick believes the shortage has roots in the pandemic. Last year, for families avoiding indoor shopping but feeling cooped up by quarantine restrictions, cutting down a Christmas tree became a safe outing.
"I wouldn't say we over-cut last year, but we were surprised last year by how many tree customers came directly to the farm."
This year, Kirkpatrick has not sent any trees to the U.S. or to his buyers in Europe or the Caribbean, so he can focus on local customers.
Already, it appears Lo-Hi farm is seeing demand above last year's record numbers, especially from people in city centres.
"The majority of people we're getting is young millennials," he said. "I don't know why that is, but I'm happy with it."
Folkins said people appear keener on natural trees than artificial ones and are looking to make the excursion into the country a tradition.
"Even last weekend was reasonably busy for us," she said. "And we're not even in December."
An increase in demand is just one part of the current tree shortage, which can also be blamed on bad weather and fewer Christmas tree farmers.
Growing conditions this summer were fantastic, with plenty of rain, but other recent years saw dry conditions. Those harsh summers stunted tree growth, then early frosts in some years were deadly to saplings. A lot can happen in the six to 10 years or so that it takes to grow a three-metre-tall tree.
And it takes longer to grow a Christmas tree farmer.
"Most tree growers, including ourselves, are 70 years old, or 70 to 75 years," Folkins said.
Folkins said finding seasonal workers to prune and maintain the trees has always been difficult. But now, with many industries in need of workers, it's nearly impossible. Many tree farmers do the work themselves, which becomes more difficult with age.
"We're one of the youngest growers in the province," Kirkpatrick said. "We try to plant three trees for every one we [cut] right now in order to keep up with our local demand.
Slightly pricier trees
The new desire for Christmas trees comes after a long period of stale demand, said Matthew Wright, the Atlantic representative of the Canadian Christmas Tree Association.
As tree farmers retired or switched to more profitable crops, Wright said, they weren't replaced. Now the demand has shot up, but there are only so many trees to go around.
"Three, four, five years ago we were seeing farms drop out of Christmas trees, diversifying to other products because of profit," said Wright.
But all that's changed in the last two years because of what Wright calls a "a perfect storm."
"I started in the '70s, and this is the most lucrative period, the strongest demand for trees, that this industry has experienced since I've been involved."
Higher demand has led to higher tree prices. The price of a tree ranges between $25 and $40 for an average-sized tree.
Wright said he's been working with wholesalers to keep the coming increases moderate. So far there hasn't been pushback from his customers.
"There has been a price increase, which is good for tree growers," said Folkins. "We faced a good many years without an increase."
She said the cost of fuel, labour and farming in general has increased, while the price of a Christmas tree hasn't changed.
Despite the increased demand, farmers expect there will be enough Christmas trees for New Brunswickers, and caution against panicking over getting a tree, especially too early.
"Every time I hear somebody say, 'Well, get your tree early because there could be a shortage,' I just quake because it puts so much pressure to cut these trees early and they are a natural product," said Wright.
"All of a sudden we get people asking for trees in early November. Like, what's with that? You know, like, there's a long time to Christmas."
And farmers are cautiously optimistic that Christmas tree farming will once again become an attractive business for farmers both old and new.
Kirkpatrick is training his seven-year-old daughter, Daisy, as the farms fourth-generation tree farmer, helping to plant and trim trees on seven different fields the family owns around Hoyt.
"Putting hats on the Christmas trees" remains her favourite part of the job, though.
Wright recently sees a glimmer of hope in Daisy's interest.
"She sees good things happening and says to Dad, 'You know Dad, I think I would like to be involved with the farm.'"