A season to be jolly?

Can last year's buoyant Christmas tree sales continue to defy the recession this year? Gavin McEwan reports on the state of the sector.

Traditional field-grown Christmas trees are beyond fashion - image: FlickR/Steve Winton
Traditional field-grown Christmas trees are beyond fashion - image: FlickR/Steve Winton

The traditional field-grown Christmas tree shows no sign of suffering either from the economy or from changing fashions. The British Christmas Tree Growers Association (BCTGA) reported a 150,000 rise in sales to 8.3m last year.

"The economy is always a concern, but the mood is positive among our members," says BCTGA secretary Roger Hay.

"They had a very good 2009 and will be hoping to see that repeated. I don't think there will be any great difference in the volumes sold this year. You have to assume that people will want a good Christmas regardless, and that will mean a tree - though there may be pressure on prices from the wider economy."

He adds that prices are more difficult to forecast than volumes. He says: "The rate of the pound to the euro and Danish krone (which is pegged to the euro) has moved back a bit.

"There has been a slight decline in the number of trees from Europe, and British growers have been growing more, but we will be in the same situation for the next five or six years until those trees are ready to sell. Until then, there will be a shortage of sizes, in particular seven to eight feet (2.1m to 2.4m) and potted trees."

Jadecliff is a grower and wholesaler based in Berkshire. Managing director and former BCTGA chairman Sadie Lynes confirms this, saying: "Larger trees - 2m and above - are scarce this year, so the cost of them is likely to go up."

Otherwise, she says: "We are trying to hold prices to last year's levels, though garden centres may find they have to take a smaller cut to keep sales going."

She adds: "Some of the European trees have been hit by frosts, and we even had a bit of damage here. Spruce species come back better than Nordmann fir - though that remains the most popular species with around 70 per cent of sales. I don't see that changing."

Forest Fresh is a major wholesaler to the garden retail sector. Director Ian Dyson says: "I think there will be a small rise in price, not as much as last year. Growers are getting near to the edge of what customers are prepared to pay. We have found a tendency for customers to move down a size - say, from a six-foot (175cm) to a five-foot tree, in order to keep to a similar cost."

Partly for this reason, he does not foresee shortages. "There will be enough trees to go around. We source from all over - not everyone can grow all sizes in the quantities we need. We have a pool of seven or eight British growers and also import. There are definitely more English trees coming through."

And he sees cost, rather than customers' concerns over provenance, as favouring British-grown trees in future. "Transport costs are unlikely to go down, though it takes eight to 10 years to produce a six-foot tree," he says. "But what people want is a nicely shaped tree for a reasonable price."

He adds that retailers are being cautious in their initial orders, anticipating a second order in response to demand. "When the trees were only £10 or £12 each it wasn't such an issue, but you don't want 50 trees left over at £20 each."

One factor increasing the proportion of home-grown trees has been investment by large Danish growers in UK planting. One such is Green Team Europe and its UK representative Hans Rafn says: "We are still planting here. It will be a couple of years before UK growers can fully meet demand, especially the larger 10-, 11- and 12-foot trees, where supply is low compared to demand. But that's true across Europe, where demand is increasing year on-year. So I would say to retailers, order as soon as possible."

Not that imports from Denmark are about to disappear. According to Odense-based Zenflora's salesman Torben Dixon: "We are certainly promoting many Christmas trees to the UK this year, and will also be present at this year's Four Oaks Trade Show.

"The export of Christmas trees to the UK is a growing business for us. We believe we are cost-effective to the UK, because of good sourcing of quality trees, efficient packaging in the plantations, effective and reliable logistics."

However, he confirms: "Some tree sizes are plentiful, but the bigger trees are more limited, as in the previous couple of years. Zenflora has secured good supply but recommends early booking to avoid disappointment."

Some retailers will be buying closer to home though. A Dobbies Garden Centres representative explains: "We have consolidated to one supplier for cut trees, which will be predominantly Scottish grown. The company will be increasing its volumes on last year and improving the quality of the trees." However, the company has yet to decide on whether or not to label such trees "Scottish grown".

Despite the growing demands of large retailers, Christmas-tree production remains quite fragmented - for a good reason, says Roger Hay. "The number of growers hasn't changed greatly overall - some have gone and others have come in. But while more than half of the market comes from the big growers, people are interested in choosing their own tree to be cut - there are many more sold at the farm than before."

The BCTGA website gets traffic from customers looking for their nearest supplier, he adds. One such grower is Salem Christmas Tree Farm in Carmarthenshire, which promotes its trees as organically grown.

According to owner Jack Bouffler: "Pest control can be a struggle - there are moths that are difficult to get rid of. But there's no price premium - the ones coming in from the continent are a similar price."

The farm aims to be a seasonal destination, with coach loads of schoolchildren from as early as October, Bouffler says. He adds that he aims to cover the full range of sizes from 1m to about 12m, for the amenity market: "Councils may look again at the expense this year, but some villages will insist on them."

FAIR TRADE TREES

Few customers are likely to have seen the need for fair trade Christmas trees, grown as they are in the well-regulated nurseries of Britain and northern Europe. But that is only part of the story, as Danish nursery grower Marianne Bols found out when she tried to source seed for the market-leading Nordmann fir from its native Georgia in the Caucasus, in a way that ensured decent pay and conditions for the seed gatherers.

Bols had to overcome corruption, intimidation and theft as she has attempted to break the cartel controlling the seed supply, a task she began over 20 years ago. Perseverance paid off when Bols Forest Nursery was accredited by Fair Trade Denmark, and now sells Nordmanns under the Fair Trees brand.

Bols has a partnership with Fairwind in North London, which last year sold around 200 Fair Trees through its shop and online. Now owner Teresa Owen says: "I'm working on trying to get the trees into Homebase and B&Q. If not, I will keep importing them and sell through my website."

While certified trees can so far be imported only from Denmark, Owen is keen to find UK growers to make a commitment to sourcing ethically produced seedlings. They could then start selling their current stock as Fair Trees, she says, adding: "We want to get on with it - we don't want to wait eight years (for imported seedlings to grow to saleable size)."

Owen has already gained the support of Georgian-born singer Katie Melua for the initiative. "I am absolutely thrilled that fair trade has reached the poor cone pickers of Georgia," Melua says. "I urge anyone who loves a real Christmas tree to buy a fair trade one this year."

The initiative supports training and facilities to benefit Georgian workers and their families. Owen adds: "The trees are much the same price as normal trees."

This means that the costs of the charitable activity are borne by growers and retailers - which Andy Bunker, director of Alton Garden Centre, feels is excessive. "This year there is far more awareness of what they are trying to do and it is clear that a lot of work has gone it to trying to get this to the market place," he says.

"It is a great idea and a very worthy cause but it has not been thought out and it has been rushed to the marketplace too early. The idea of having to pay EUR0.85 (75p) in the present climate is not possible on the main sizes of trees, which represents almost four per cent on top of the cost price."


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