Interview - Harry Brightwell, secretary, British Christmas Tree Growers Association

Harry Brightwell recently became secretary of the British Christmas Tree Growers Association (BCTGA), taking over from Roger Hay, who had been in the role for almost 15 years. After a career in public sector information technology, Brightwell runs Fynn Valley Care Farm in Suffolk, which provides a therapeutic facility for people with depression and other mental illnesses, and includes a small Christmas tree business.

Harry Brightwell, secretary, British Christmas Tree Growers Association - image: CTGA
Harry Brightwell, secretary, British Christmas Tree Growers Association - image: CTGA

Q: How is the Christmas tree market this year?

A: I think things are going really well this year and prices are similar to last year, which is good news for customers. The rain has been of quite a bit of benefit and the crops are looking fairly lush, green and healthy. Wholesale and retail prices are looking similar to last year.

Q: Is there a shortage of trees this year?

A: The only thing I'm hearing from growers is that there is a shortage of taller trees. Most people buy trees that are about 6ft and that is not too much of a problem. It's the trees of 7-8ft tall that are currently in short supply. In earlier years people have cut and sold trees so they didn't grow that extra foot.

Q: Is the market heading towards over production in the coming years?

A: It depends what happens across the world. There was a frost in southern Europe that hit the buds and knocked those trees for six. It depends what the weather is like. More trees are coming in Britain and if trees are available in Britain they won't need to be imported. Across eastern Europe the market is starting to open up so it's difficult to know if there will be over production or if the extra stock will just be absorbed.

Q: Is the wet weather causing any problems?

A: The good-news part of the weather is that it has helped the quality of the trees, but there is a problem with harvesting and getting the tractors into the fields. The hope is that we have a few more dry days. We don't want floods. We are just getting into the cutting season now and we want it to keep dry.

Q: Do artificial trees pose a threat to the market?

A: Memories are priceless and the trip to buy the tree is a family event. I wonder whether people buy artificial trees thinking they will look good and then realise how much a real tree adds to the atmosphere and go back to a real one the next year.

Q: Are retailers asking for trees too early?

A: It's important for the growers and the retailers to work together. People want a good tree and you've got to get the balance right between having the tree on sale first and having a healthy tree that people want to buy. Nordman firs last a good while.

Q: Are growers looking at alternative varieties of tree?

A: Yes. They are growing different types of tree so customers can pick a tree that they like. Lots of people still like Norway spruce because of the shape of the needles and the smell of the pine, and others like nordman fir because of the shape. Every tree is going to be different. With a real tree it's unique and you're getting something you've picked. It's an important part of Christmas and growers are trying to give more choice.

Q: How big a problem is current season needle necrosis?

A: The BCTGA has got a strategy on it and we have some trials being done at the moment. For the customer it is not an issue because any tree with the signs of the disease wouldn't be put up for sale. When people come to select trees for the market they wouldn't select those with browning needles. We are looking at what's causing it. It's one of those things in that it doesn't affect all trees. It can be a high percentage but it doesn't spread through the whole plantation. The trials are going on at the moment and we are monitoring trees and trialling different chemicals to see what impact they have. In August next year we should have a paper to give us a better understanding of how to cure or prevent it. Some people have had problems with it but those who haven't are asking: "What's the fuss about?" As an association, we need to work on it in case it does become a massive problem. There is no point waiting for it to be a larger problem before we do anything.

Q: What is the benefit of the BCTGA tree competition?

A: There were 120 people there this year and a good variety of trees, with people from all over the country including Wales and Scotland, which shows how prestigious an event it is. Also, you are being judged by your peers, which is better than two or three judges. With fake trees out there, it is quite pleasing that somewhere like 10 Downing Street is sticking with real trees. It is the same in Trafalgar Square, which also has a real tree.

CV

2010: Retired after 20 years in the public sector as IT director

2012 to date: Secretary, British Christmas Tree Growers Association


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