Toronto

It's beginning to look a lot like a Christmas tree shortage in Ontario amid high demand, low supply

This year a perfect storm of factors has culminated in a shortage that's driving fir tree prices up about 20 per cent. Experts say climate change and the pandemic are partly to blame.

Buy a local conifer rather than seek out that perfect Fraser fir, farmers recommend

Brad Clements owns Clembrook Christmas Farm with his wife Jo Anne in Milton, Ont. While he grows and sells pine and spruce trees, they're not as popular as Fraser firs. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

The barn is stocked with hundreds of deep green Fraser and balsam firs, the sharp smell of wood and sap signalling the start of another busy season at Clembrook Christmas Farm.

Owners Brad and Jo Anne Clements in Milton, Ont. are anticipating such high demand for the firs they're opening a week later hoping to guarantee their supply will get them through December. But even then, there's a real possibility they'll be sold out early.

"If we run out and they want a Fraser fir, we won't have it. They would have to go and get a spruce or pine," Clements said, gesturing to his fields dotted with both, "but they're not overly popular." 

Clements has tried growing the sought-after Fraser fir with no luck in the heavy clay soil. So he has to order them from northern Ontario. This year, however, a perfect storm of factors has culminated in a shortage driving fir tree prices up about 20 per cent, he said. 

A seasonal worker at Somerville Nurseries, in Everett, Ont., harvests a Christmas tree on Nov. 19, 2021. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

It's a North American problem going back to a decade ago, experts say. After all, that's when the trees we're buying now were first planted.

Coming off the recession in 2011, tree farmers were less inclined to scale up their operations and didn't anticipate today's surge in demand for real Christmas trees and Fraser firs in particular, said Shirley Brennan, executive director of Christmas Tree Farmers of Ontario.

"The demand has risen so much that we could not have forecasted that was going to happen," Brennan said. 

She said in the last five years alone, Canada's Christmas tree industry has nearly doubled from $53-million to  $100-million in total sales.

Mother Nature 'hasn't been very cooperative'

Forests Ontario CEO Rob Keen said as more people have become aware of climate change and the environmental impacts of artificial trees, they've sought out real ones. And as the pandemic continues, families are looking for an outdoor experience like visiting a farm or nursery in search of a perfect tree.

"There's a lot of benefits of using real trees," he said. "They've got a great fragrance about them. They look fantastic and they're 100 per cent biodegradable."

Freshly cut Christmas trees are loaded on a truck to be transported to sellers across the region. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

But while climate change and the pandemic may be driving demand, they're also hampering supply.

From Nova Scotia to Quebec and the Ottawa-area, late-spring frosts in recent years have damaged or destroyed Christmas trees big and small, Brennan said. The extreme heat from wildfires have affected trees in Alberta and B.C., and Ontario farmers have grappled with unusually dry springs and falls. The U.S. is having similar challenges and therefore not exporting trees to Canada at the same levels.

"Mother Nature is your silent partner in any farming," Brennan said. "She hasn't been very cooperative in the last few years."

The pandemic has also fuelled supply chain problems and has driven up transportation costs, said Keen. It has also contributed to a growing truck driver shortage.

"Everything in the world seems to be on back order these days so I imagine that could have an impact getting trees to market," he said.

450 trees sold in 10 days

Judy Clarke, manager of Toronto's East End Garden Centre, said her biggest challenge is getting trees delivered in time. Her prices have gone up in response to freight rates doubling, but she's still sold 450 trees in about 10 days.

"We've had a steady stream going by every day," she said.

She's anticipating she'll sell out by mid-December, with no way to get more from farther away.

Judy Clarke, manager of Toronto's East End Garden Centre, says they're getting customers from all over the city. She thinks her trees will be sold out by mid-December. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

"Because of the big fire they had in B.C. and the floods now there's nothing coming out of there, nothing," said Clarke.

Clements, who has been growing and selling Christmas trees for the last 30 years, suggested customers should be open to a different kind of evergreen tree, like a locally grown Scotch pine.

"It's the old favourite of many years ago for this part of Canada," he said, running his hands through the needles.

"It's a nice tree, it still looks nice and its branches are very strong, so it does hold ornaments properly."

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