Some want trees early – too early. Others want the tallest available, or taller than they’ve got. These days, short-needled trees are most popular among families buying trees to recreate a childhood Christmas scene of the late ’60s.
Those are trends observed by local Christmas tree growers who traditionally open their gates the end of November for families who enjoy a choose-and- cut outing to a nearby tree farm.
It’s a busy time for growers like Cliff and Dorothy Freund, who own CD Trees at Steinbach, with about 15,000 trees growing in rotation on 40 acres.
Over the years the Freunds, and other growers, have noted how an earlier start to Christmas influences some people’s tree-buying habits. They come wanting to take home a live tree too many weeks ahead of time, assuming it should last until the big day if they water it.
Most people don’t water their trees that diligently, says Cliff, who’ll usually advise people to hold off a bit.
You can’t have a live tree in your home for six or seven weeks, says Cliff. I don’t like to recommend that anyway.
Taller trees have also come into vogue alongside bigger houses.
Heights of six up to eight feet are what most typically want, but some are now looking for trees twice that tall.
They want them because they have taller ceilings, he said. We sell some 12 feet tall.
As for the tree preferences, spruce or fir trees, or the old-style Christmas tree, seem most popular right now, he adds. There’s been a shift away from the longer-needled Scotch pine.
A lot of people coming out (to tree farms) right now are 40-year-old parents, he said. They’re choosing a type of tree they grew up with.
The Freunds are listed among seven growers on the Manitoba Christmas Tree Growers Association website.
All have now opened their gates to tree-buying customers.
Christmas tree growers face no easy feat meeting consumer demands in this kind of pick-your- own business. Preferences shift at a slower pace, but prices are much harder to predict.
Local Christmas tree growers have their own version of big-box versus boutique competition to deal with as large growers in the U.S. ship in large, wholesale volumes of oversupply pre-cut trees, which influence prices.
What happens in that situation is you’ve been thinking “I’ll put in a lot of Balsam and have the right kind of tree that brings a good return,” then all of a sudden you’ll find the price has dropped at big-box stores, said Cliff.
The only way around that is
having a good mix of tree species to sell, he adds.
Most growers have a variety of sheared Scots pine, Balsam fir and Black spruce. Some have White pine, Fraser fir and the Canaan fir in their mix.
You can’t make a quick change of inventory in this business; it can take between seven to 10 years or more to grow a market-ready tree.
You also don’t make a quick buck.
Running a tree farm requires planning and lots of work. Most of the labour is trimming. Cliff and Dorothy typically spend the better part of their summers trimming trees that have reached taller than knee height, so they grow into the desirable spire shape. During busy seasons growers often have to hire staff to handle the calls.
Like any other producer of an ag commodity, weather plays a role in how steady business is too. Colder weather keeps the customers away.
There are fewer Christmas tree growers around than there used to be, Cliff says. Membership in the provincial Christmas tree grower association has dropped by half.
I think about five years ago, we had up to 14 growers actively selling trees, he said. Seven growers listed on the website this year.
The decline is reflected across the rest of Canada. According to a recentGlobe and Mailarticle, membership in the Canadian Christmas Tree Growers Association, about 800 at its peak 20 years ago, is about 400 today.
For those still around, the good news, at least here in Manitoba, is that there seems to be a slight upswing in demand for own-cut trees. People won’t travel long distances for this, but support from local markets is good, says Cliff.
Where the opportunities are (to choose and cut a tree locally) people take advantage of them.
Christmas tree growers have also added an element of agritourism to their product, by offering cider and hot chocolate, to visitors, fire pits to warm up beside and horse-drawn sleigh rides.
Christmas tree growers are concentrated on the east side of Manitoba, in the Steinbach, La Broquerie, Beausejour and Tyndall areas. A map and listing of Christmas tree growers is found on the website of the MCTGA at www.realchristmastrees.mb.ca.
PRE-CHRISTMAS OUTING:So long as the weather isn’t too cold, many families enjoy a trip to a local choose-and-cut tree farm.
How to care for a real tree
If you’re not ready to put your tree up when you’ve brought it home, store it in a cool, sheltered area, such as a unheated garage or basement, to prevent it from drying out.
Make a fresh cut on the trunk at least one inch thick above the original cut when you’re ready to put it up. This improves the tree’s ability to take in water, by removing resin clots that can reduce water absorption.
Use a large-capacity, water-holding stand and don’t let the water supply run out. When that happens a seal forms on the cut and the tree can’t take on more water, thus causing rapid drying. Check the water supply daily. A tree may absorb from a pint to a gallon of water each day, depending upon its size and condition.
Do not place the tree near heat sources, such as a fireplace or heating vent.
Source: Manitoba Christmas Tree Growers Association
How can you tell if your tree is fresh?
Some pre-cut Christmas trees that are too dry have brittle branches that shed needles easily. Test twigs and needles for flexibility by:
Pulling the end of a branch through your fingers; the needles should slide through without coming off.
Banging the stump end of the trunk sharply on the ground; a freshly cut tree will not lose its green needles.
Folding a needle back until the tip touches the stem to make a circle. If it breaks or does not bounce back, chances are the tree is old and dry. In very cold weather, hold the needles in the palm of your hand so they can thaw before trying.
Source: Manitoba Christmas Tree Growers Association