Christmas tree shortage has farmers anticipating a rush on their crops

A combination of high demand and bad weather is fuelling a shortage of trees available for sale this year.

'We're thinking Christmas trees are going to be the toilet paper of 2021'

A shopper carries a Christmas tree through the Ikea parking lot in Ottawa in 2020. Ikea won't have any available for sale this year. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

An anticipated Christmas tree shortage has some local farmers preparing for a potential rush on their crops this year.

Christine Thomas, co-owner of Thomas Tree Farm in North Gower, in Ottawa's rural southwest, said she and her husband are opening a week later than usual because they're expecting a surge of customers and don't want to sell out too early.

"We're concerned we're going to be overwhelmed the first weekend because everybody's going to come out to get their Christmas tree early," she said.

Ian and Christine Thomas say they're opening their farm a week later than normal this year in an attempt not to sell out their stock too early. (Robyn Miller/CBC)

"It's kind of like toilet paper during the pandemic ... we're thinking Christmas trees are going to be the toilet paper of 2021."

The shortage is, in part, due to a growing demand for trees in recent years, said Shirley Brennan, executive director of the Christmas Tree Farmers of Ontario.

"The Canadian Christmas Tree industry went from, in 2015, a $53 million industry to 2020, a $100 million industry," she said.

Both Thomas and Brennan said since trees take between eight and 10 years to reach the right height, it was impossible to predict the current demand. The trees planted at the beginning of the boom aren't ready to be sold.

"It's not like a widget, like you just manufacture more trees," said Thomas.

Some farms unable to open

As some local farmers anticipate a rush on their stock, others won't be able to open at all.

Dan Laird, owner of Laird's Tree Farm in Osgoode, in Ottawa's south end, said a combination of dry summer weather and heavy frost has damaged a sizeable chunk of the crop that was meant to be sold this year. 

"I don't have enough good quality trees, so there's no point in opening," he said.

Heavy frost can damage fir trees by causing the tips of the branches to brown. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

Laird said he's also had problems finding enough employees to help tend the trees.

The farm has been in Laird's family since 1976 and he now has to turn away loyal customers.

"They want to come in, but I just say 'sorry, you're going to have to find somewhere else to go,' which may hurt me in the next couple of years."

Limited supply

Customers who typically get their trees at a local lot rather than a farm may also have limited options.

Ikea has announced it won't be selling live trees at any of its stores across the country this year, and local small retailers are also having difficulty finding trees.

Le Marché de l'Outaouais in Gatineau, Que., was told by its wholesaler there won't be any trees available.

"I've called a couple providers in the area and they have all the same response, 'I'm going to keep them for myself because there's high demand right now,''' said manager Charles Provencher.

It will be the first time in the store's 13 years in business it won't be selling any firs.

The second COVID Christmas has people getting into the spirit of the season extra early this year, and demand is high for trees, while supply is running low. Ottawa Morning heads to a Christmas tree farm in Stittsville, where longtime producer Kenny Stuyt has had to get creative to make sure he doesn't run out of stock.