Larry Whitehead is getting ready to open his Christmas tree farm for the season.
Whitehead, owner Red Truck Trees in South Surrey, B.C., will open for business Nov. 24. For 15 years, he has been growing Christmas trees, but over the past few years it’s been a challenge to do so, and that is no different this year.
“We had a drought in the province of British Columbia this summer, and also for the past two or three summers, so many growers lost a lot of their seedlings. The new plantings really don’t have a root system to withstand much drought,” said Whitehead, who is also the director of the BC Christmas Tree Association.
“It’s an indication of climate change. Farming any type of crop is always a challenge. It’s weather dependent, but really the last four years, it’s been very dry every summer and without irrigation, it’s probably very difficult to grow Christmas trees anymore.”
Climate change aside, Canada’s Christmas tree sector continues to face two persistent issues: a dwindling supply of farmers and high demand, said Shirley Brennan, the executive director of the Canadian Christmas Trees Association.
Over the last decade, Canada has lost more than 20,000 acres of Christmas tree farms solely due to farmers aging out, retiring or dying without a succession plan in place, Brennan said.
The industry has also seen demand increase “beyond what we could have expected,” Brennan said. That has resulted in it becoming a $100-million industry in 2021, compared with a $53-million industry in 2015, Brennan added.
The solution to meeting that demand is getting more farmers on board. It takes about 10 years to grow a good Christmas tree, and the industry is noticing more interest from younger farmers, Brennan said.
“The farmers aren’t just going to start with Christmas trees because if we had to wait 10 years for our paycheque, we probably wouldn’t do it either. The younger generation is going to get into agritourism, where they have you coming to their farms more than once. A lot of the younger generation want you to come to their farms every season, so they have something for every season,” she said.
“That’s the focus, that’s going to be the future. It’s not going to be the huge plantations. It’s going to be the smaller, individual farms that offer more than one season.”
Whitehead said governments can play a role in bringing in more Christmas tree farmers.
“It wouldn’t be a major role, but would be simply providing seedlings to new growers; a seedling costs an average of about $2 a seedling, we grow approximately 1,200 trees per acre so you can easily calculate the numbers,” he told Global News.
“If we could somehow figure into the federal government’s two billion tree planning program … that may be one area of the federal government being able to help Christmas tree growers, at least new growers.”
Brennan said 2023 was a “pretty good year” for tree growth in most parts of Canada despite the extreme weather.
This year was marked by a record-setting wildfire season, which has seen some 18.5 million hectares of land torched, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre.
Wildfires were particularly bad in British Columbia: roughly 2.5 million hectares of land have burned due to more than 2,200 wildfires this year, government data shows.
Whitehead said he was unaware of any Christmas tree farms in the province that were lost to the wildfires, but he said he’s talked to some growers who have lost up 4,000 new plantings this summer due to drought.
Flooding in Nova Scotia this summer impacted farmers who can’t get their trees to market, Brennan said.
“The wholesalers just saw (officials) upgrading the roads they can haul their equipment out from, so it’s going to be impacts like that,” she said.
“It may be the odd tree farm, but most of our farmers have said it’s going to be a great season to harvest.”
This year was also marked by sticky inflation.
The Bank of Canada has aggressively raised its key lending rate in a bid to cool inflation. It held its policy rate at five per cent last month, noting there are clearer signs of the economy cooling and inflation easing. However, it did leave the door open to future rate increases, citing concerns that inflationary risks have increased.
Overall inflation has cooled significantly since last summer’s 8.1 per cent peak, coming in at 3.8 per cent in September. However, that still remains above the central bank’s two per cent target.
The result of inflation this year will likely be about a five per cent increase in prices for trees, Brennan said. The average price last year increased roughly 10 per cent from the year prior.
“The farmer sets the price because he or she knows what the cost of running their farm is. So when we look at the prices of Christmas trees, it’s not because demand has gone up, it’s because (the cost of) running a farm has gone up,” she said.
“Last year we saw at a minimum a 50 per cent increase in fertilizer alone, not to mention the insurance has gone up, fuel, transportation. … Those all impact the prices, so you’re going to probably see there’s going to be a lot of farms that their costs increased because they’ve kind of balanced that out.”
Brennan said farmers have diversified their inventory to counteract inflation and demand.
“Years ago, everybody got a Scotch pine, and that was the traditional Christmas tree and then gradually we brought in fir trees, so we’re seeing that people are now experimenting with what type of tree and they’re also looking at, what goes into their space,” she said.
“We’re really listening to what the consumer wants. We’ve also seen a huge increase in tabletop trees, so people who are living in smaller areas or condominiums can bring in a tabletop Christmas tree and take care of it just like they would a (traditional) Christmas tree. … That’s why we have those different species, the different species, the different sizes, so that we have a price point for everyone.”