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Drought, dwindling number of farms cut into Christmas tree supply

Christmas tree farms are vanishing — from 500 a decade ago to about 400 now — as owners retire and sell off their land, while supplies are also being hit hard by extreme weather

It’s more than a month until Christmas, but Jingle Bells are turning to alarm bells as fresh Christmas trees are expected to be in short supply this year.

“I would say buy sooner rather than later,” says Larry Whitehead, a Surrey commercial grower and a member of the B.C. Christmas Tree Association. “It looks like we’re going to be tight on supply again this year.”

The irony is that Canada’s most treed province simply can’t meet the demand for fresh-cut Christmas trees and has to import the conifers from Washington, Oregon, Quebec and Nova Scotia, says Whitehead.

The problem is Christmas tree farms are vanishing — from 500 a decade ago to about 400 now — as owners retire and sell off their land.

B.C. supplies are also being hit hard by extreme weather. A crushing heat dome in 2021 killed off seedlings and damaged maturing trees. That was compounded by a record drought this past summer that could affect quality and supplies this year and into the future.

The average Christmas tree grows about a foot a year, and trees are harvested between the ages of four and seven.

Whitehead said the industry has reached out to the Ministry of Agriculture to help encourage young farmers to get into the tree business by designating underutilized land for growing. “You can grow a tree on just about any kind of land and there’s lot of land in B.C. not being used,” he says.

Robert Russell, 84, who operates the 25-acre Sahtlam Tree Farm near Duncan, has brought in a new partner to help him continue a Christmas tree farm tradition that’s lasted 50 years. Down the road from his property, he says two similar farms recently stopped growing trees because the owners retired.

“The problem is we’re all getting a little older, and the number of farmers are getting fewer and fewer,” says Russell.

Despite losing all his seedlings to the heat dome in 2021 and about 75% of his new stock this past summer, Russell started harvesting about 3,000 trees this week. They will go Root Cellar stores in Victoria, West Shore Canadian Tire and the Boys Scouts of Canada, which sells them to raise funds.

Russell, who has a degree in forestry and lives in a cabin he built at his farm near Duncan, said there will likely be fewer trees next year and in coming seasons because the survival rate for seedlings has dipped. “It will bite you down the line,” he says.

Paige Wheaton, owner of potted Evergrow Christmas Trees in the Lower Mainland, said the weather is taking a toll on supplies in the province.

“I’ve been in constant contact with farmers across the Lower Mainland and on Vancouver Island for the past two months, and everyone is telling me this is going to be a crazy season with huge demand and significantly reduced supply due to the summer heat wave,” Wheaton said, adding many farms and lots are planning to open for only one or two weekends in November because they know they will sell out fast.

Kim Frocklage, who sourced and sold trees at Braefoot Park for decades, is moving her operation to West Shore Parks and Recreation in Colwood this year, the result of a facility-use spat between the District of Saanich and Braefoot Athletic Association.

She normally stocks about 2,000 trees a year, but is scrambling to come up with about 1,300 from several sources, including the Sahtlam Farm, and growers in Invermere and Oregon.

She plans to open sales in the lacrosse box at West Shore Parks and Rec on Nov. 25. “People are calling me now to reserve because they didn’t know where I was going to be or if there would be trees,” said Frocklage. “There will be shortages because everybody’s playing catch-up from the last two or three years of fires, floods and the heat dome.”

Tim Hale, who operates a seedling nursery in the Cowichan Valley, says Christmas tree farmers now have to irrigate if they have any hope of making it in the business. “We went through 24 weeks of drought, and the seedlings just can’t take that,” he says. “Even with the recent rains we’ve had, you can dig down a foot and it’s dry. The big rains just run off. We need that steady rain to really soak in.”

Hale’s Cairn Park Nursery has six greenhouses, but only dedicates parts of one to Christmas tree seedlings, producing about 30,000 seedlings for next year. “A big part of the problem on the south Island is the big growers are getting out or on the verge of retiring — and no one’s coming in to fill the void,” he says.

Hale said the fresh-cut Christmas tree industry has ebbed and flowed over the years in the battle of fresh versus artificial trees, but started to see a resurgence during the pandemic.

“People were stuck at home and it was an opportunity for families to get out and do something together, like find and cut down a Christmas tree,” says Hale. “We saw a huge increase. But it may go the other way now.”

At Saanichton Christmas Farms, owner Joan Fleming is opening her Christmas tree sales this Friday at 8231 East Saanich Road.

She’s been harvesting about 3,000 trees from her farm on the Peninsula and a 50-acre plot near Shawnigan Lake, as well as importing another 1,000 trees from the East Kootenays. The Fleming family has also provided the evergreen in the legislature rotunda since the early 1980s, and plans to deliver a big conifer on Nov. 29.

“I worked at a dentist for 25 years, so you’re often dealing with people who aren’t happy to be there,” says Fleming. “But selling Christmas trees … well, people are happy, whole families are happy. It’s like night and day.”

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