Christmas trees - Bumper harvest

A wet spring caused concerns the Christmas tree crop might suffer, but the industry has avoided any setbacks, writes Jack Shamash.

Needlefresh Plantation: growers are confident that the late planting will not affect the development of trees
Needlefresh Plantation: growers are confident that the late planting will not affect the development of trees

The wet conditions this spring caused concern for Christmas tree growers. Unable to work on waterlogged fields, growers feared that the crop might suffer. Despite these worries, the industry seems to have emerged unscathed. Growers believe that there should be a bumper harvest, good supplies of trees and that prices should be stable.

The wet spring made it impossible to plant trees until relatively late in the season. Christopher Hood MD at major supplier Needlefresh, explained: ‘In Scotland they couldn’t plant until May, but overall we managed to plant in reasonable time.’ John Osborne, owner of Osborne Trees based near Glastonbury, commented: ‘We use bare root trees, which are about 40cm tall and plant around 4,000 trees an acre. We only finished the planting at the end of May.’

However growers are confident that the late planting will not affect the trees’ development. He said that very few trees had failed: ‘At present the only problem is deer and rabbits, but we’ve put fences to control them,’ he said.

The wet weather has created other challenges. Rob Morgan, owner of Welsh firm Gower Fresh Christmas Trees, explained: ‘It’s been very difficult to move tractors. That means we’ve had trouble weeding.’ Across the industry, most of the weeding is done mechanically, with tractors simply cutting down growth between trees. John Osborne said: ‘Much of our weeding is outstanding. We haven’t been able to do it.’ However he has tried to restrict growth with smaller mowers and herbicides.

Meanwhile, in common with all growers, Christmas tree supplies have had to contend with aphid populations boosted by a mild winter and wet spring. Growers usually hope for a good, sharp frost over winter to reduce numbers. Aphids can cause discolouration of the trees and will also spread fungal infections. Gower Fresh Trees has been spraying against giant aphids and woolly balsam aphids. Rob Morgan said: ‘We have to do a lot of surveying and inspection, to make sure it doesn’t get out of hand.’

Vigilance

The good news is needle necrosis, has failed to emerge, although the industry is being vigilant. ‘We had needle necrosis badly in 2012,’ said Rob Morgan, ‘but we’ve had nothing this year. It seems to be more of a problem in Norway.’ Similarly there have no major problems with fungal infections, which are being kept under control with the normal spraying routines.

The British Christmas Tree Growers Association said: ‘The weather conditions have been varied across the country but reports from growers are that trees are looking really very good this year. All our members are working hard throughout the year to produce good quality healthy trees for the Christmas market.’

Growers are trying to ensure that a good variety of trees are on offer. Around eight million real trees are sold each year. Around five million of these are Nordmann firs, while another 2 million are Norway Spruce. The BCTGA reckons that round one million Fraser Firs (abies fraseri) are sold each year.

In addition there are around 100,000 Noble Firs, 150,000 Lodgepole Pines as well as a smaller number of Blue Spruce and Korean Spruce. The Norway spruce is the traditional Christmas tree, which has a good scent and is still preferred by many people, however customers are opting for the Nordmann, which retains its needles better.

Demand for the unusual

According to Rob Morgan, there is increased demand for the more unusual Fraser Firs and Korean Firs , which have always been popular in the American market. ‘They are slightly narrower, they don’t drop their needles, they smell very fresh and they look very good in smaller homes,’ he said.

The only problem is that they often carry a large number of cones, most of which have to be cut off. But Nordmann is still the market leader. Christopher Hood from Needlefresh says
that Nordmann makes up 85 per cent of his firm’s sales.

Andy Bunker, a partner of Alton Garden Centre oversees the purchase of 35,000 Christmas trees per year for the Tillington Group. He points out that customers love the lemon scent of the Fraser Fir, the needle holding ability of the Nordmann and the blue colour of the Noble Fir.
‘If somebody could combine those qualities in one tree, they’d be very popular,’ he said.

The market for Christmas trees is competitive. Big retailers like B&Q, Homebase and the supermarket chains are having a major impact and increasing their sales of smaller trees.

Christopher Hood explained: ‘Multiples and supermarkets are concentrating on the good value smaller tree because the person in the DIY store or supermarket wants a four or five foot tree that will fit in the car.’

However Needlefresh does not believe that the big retailers are putting too much pressure on the growers. ‘They’ve realised that there is a link between the price and the quality of tree. If they press for dirt cheap prices, then we have to sell them a higher percentage of second grade trees. Buyers are now working with us to give the customer what he or she wants.’ Christopher Hood points out that some retailers – notably Waitrose – are insisting on top quality trees.

Andy Bunker says that the market can be divided into three sections. ‘Some people want promotional quality trees, which will sell at £25 or £30. It’s cheap and will bring in the customers. At the top of the market, some garden centres are insisting on top quality and will charge around £60 for a six foot tree. And there is a mass market level for around £50.’

An ongoing bugbear is the large number of pop-up shops, selling cheap trees – often of dubious quality. Andy Bunker claims this is having a major impact. ‘You get a site which sells cheap fireworks in October and Christmas trees in December. They’ll buy a couple of hundred Christmas trees and make £10 each on them. They won’t be very good trees, but the British people like a bargain.’

Meanwhile, artificial trees continue to prove popular. Firms such as National Trees will produce artificial products which come with a stick of scent. They cost between £200 and £300. ‘We buy several thousand of these a year,’ said Andy Bunker. ‘They last around five years. If we sell 1,000 trees, we’re effectively reducing the demand for real trees by about 4,000.’ Many people start shopping for Christmas, as soon as they’ve received their October pay-packet. They will buy a synthetic tree before the real product is even available.

To counter these challenges, many growers sell products at the farm gate. John Osborne offers free mistletoe and a bag of novelty ‘reindeer dust’. ‘We have a joke with customers and offer them a personal service. It becomes a memorable event. We get an 80 per cent return rate.’

Big trees a mainstay

Garden centres concentrate on the larger trees, which the multiples are unable to supply. Christopher Hood said: ‘These are not such a price sensitive purchase, because people looking to buy a seven foot tree have the tree as the mainstay of their Christmas and they want it to be right.’ John Osborne explained that last year he couldn’t get enough of the large trees which were bought for domestic use by people with large homes – as well as for Council offices and
shopping centres.

Of course, there is still a demand for living trees. ‘There’s a new interest in pot-grown trees,’ said Christopher Hood,’ because as we come out of recession, cash is less tight.’

Jon Mason, planteria manager at Highfield Garden World in Gloucestershire said: "We sell around 1,000 fresh trees a year, starting during the last week of November to coincide with our Christmas discount shopping night.

At Highfield, Christmas trees are an important part of a big Christmas push right across the
store.  "We position ourselves as a Christmas one-stop-shop, with plenty of gifts, a dedicated "Christmas shop" selling thousands of different decorations and lights, a Santa’s Grotto and the trees themselves."


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