Nova Scotia

Pick your Christmas tree early, say growers after tough year

A sudden drop below freezing during the June growing season caused ice damage or "burn" to the tips of branches. This left unsightly brown or bare ends, which make some trees unmarketable.

Nova Scotia growers have shipped 30 to 40 per cent fewer trees this year than usual

Christmas tree farmer Wayne Millett looks at the dead tips of the branches of a balsam fir damaged by ice in Chester Grant, N.S. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

A tough year for Christmas tree farmers has some Nova Scotia growers warning they will have fewer trees than usual to go around. 

A sudden drop below freezing during the June growing season caused ice damage or "burn" to the tips of branches. This left unsightly brown or bare ends, which make some trees unmarketable.

"Totally devastated. I didn't know what to do," said Wayne Higgins, whose farm Qualitrees is located in Upper Musquodoboit.

He realized he wouldn't be able to export any trees to the United States, which meant losing between $15,000 and $20,000 of income. But he had hoped to sell in the Halifax area.

"Once I got tagging trees and realizing the damage was more extensive than I had previously thought, I realized I couldn't do that either," he said.

Higgins normally sells trees destined for the local market at a Farmer Clem's stall in Hammonds Plains. But he said this year the cost of hauling trees to Halifax and renting space for a stall would not make business sense.

Higgins estimates 80 per cent of his crop was damaged by the freeze. He has about 150 trees fit for sale, which he will try to sell directly from his farm.

Brown or bare tips of a balsam fir that was damaged by ice in June. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

Wayne Millett's tree U-Pick in Chester Grant suffered damage to about 25 per cent of the crop. He calls the bare branch tips "toothpicks." He has to explain to prospective customers that the dead ends can be groomed off. There's no way he can groom his entire field.

"My concern was that the growth looking like that they'd think it was a disease or something into it. That's what we have to tell them the very first thing, it's ice damage," he said.

Millett said the freeze did not affect all the trees equally, and some standing side-by-side have differing amounts of damage. 

"There happens to be a spot there's trees even a foot, a foot-and-a-half high. I don't think they're going to recover. I think it froze them right out," he said.

The Christmas Tree Council of Nova Scotia said it believes everyone who wants to buy a tree should have no problem getting one, but it still expects there may be a smaller selection of "quality" trees.

It said provincewide, farmers have shipped between 60 and 70 per cent of what they normally would. Areas that were hardest hit, such as Lunenburg County, only shipped about 30 per cent.

Lunenburg County bills itself as a top producer of balsam fir Christmas trees. (CBC)

"One of the things that's really unfortunate, the industry was poised to have a really good year this year. Prices were up some for the producers. Export markets are strong. We were looking for a good growing season, and really a bumper crop. And unfortunately instead of that, we went the other way," said Michael Keddy, a grower in New Ross and the president of the council.  

"I think this will be something that hangs on for a minimum of two years, but yes, the industry will rebound from it."

Keddy said his industry has been talking with the provincial government about using disaster relief programs like AgriRecovery, a federal-provincial program for farm crops. A spokesperson for the provincial Agricultural Department confirmed it will "continue to work closely" with the industry.

"There's been a lot of talk; we're in the early stages of seeing what that talk produces," Keddy said.

Jeff Reeves is a Christmas tree farmer in New Ross. His family has been operating the balsam fir farm since the 1950s. (CBC)

For now, many farmers are waiting to see whether their trees will recover with the next growing season. Jeff Reeves's family has been growing balsam firs since his father started his New Ross farm in the 1950s.

"I've never seen it this bad. A tree like that — I've never seen that happen before," he said Monday while looking over his field.

Reeves said he will still ship 700 trees to his tree lot in Lower Sackville, but to make up the full quota he had to buy trees from other growers in order to have enough. He expects the coming weekend will be the busiest for sales.

"Normally this weekend and next weekend would be our two big weekends. But I'm not sure what we're going to have left for the weekend after this one," he said.

About the Author

Shaina Luck

Reporter

Shaina Luck covers everything from court to city council. Her favourite stories are about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Email: shaina.luck@cbc.ca