Nova Scotia Christmas trees studied for worms to expand markets
Longhorn beetles ground up and analyzed for nematode DNA
A federal government scientist is probing whether Nova Scotia Christmas trees are free of a parasite called the pine wilt nematode, with the aim of unlocking lucrative markets in Europe.
Europeans buy millions of natural trees each year, but countries such as the U.K. have been hit by repeated shortages in the last two decades.
Last year, Nova Scotia exported more than $6 million worth of Christmas trees to the U.S., Caribbean and Asia.
But Europe has long refused to accept shipments from Canada because of fears over the pine wilt nematode, a worm-like parasite in North America that enters a tree's vascular system, cuts off nutrients and eventually kills it.
A scientist with the federal Department of Agriculture has started studying the problem to ascertain whether Nova Scotia Christmas trees carry nematodes and what should be done if they do. The goal is to pry open the European market to this province's Christmas trees.
"What we want to try to do is develop a certification process that the Europeans will accept," said Suzanne Blatt, an entomologist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada who works out of Kentville.
Blatt and her team have trapped dozens of longhorn beetles at 10 Christmas tree fields this year. The insects are ground up and analyzed for nematode DNA.
Trees will also be inspected for signs of the parasite.
"If our results are consistently negative then we have scientifically-based evidence to take back to the European Union and say that we do not believe our trees have this nematode," Blatt said.
If the Europeans can be convinced to open their markets, the benefits to Nova Scotia growers could be dramatic, said Forrest Higgins, a longtime Christmas tree exporter in Middle Musquodoboit.
"It will be a very significant change in the industry," he said.
Nova Scotia is ideally placed to tap the European market given the easy access to the Port of Halifax where trees are already shipped in refrigerated containers to places as far away as the Middle East.
After several years of stagnant exports, Nova Scotia growers are eyeing the next couple of years with enthusiasm. That's because of looming tree shortages in the United States, which is boosting demand and prices.
Laurie Levy, a Christmas tree grower in Black River, said he's excited about the potential.
"It should raise the price a lot, you see, because it'll be more competitive but I'll tell you, it should bring or return a lot of Christmas tree producers in the province," he said.
Opening a European market would only accentuate that and encourage younger Nova Scotia farmers to get into Christmas tree production, Higgins said.