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The ins and outs of Christmas tree farming

Christmas trees are a multi-million dollar business in Nova Scotia. (Photo Credit: wbaiv)

Christmas trees are a multi-million dollar business in Nova Scotia. (Photo Credit: wbaiv)

In the Christmas tree business, size matters and bigger is not always better.

Mike Keddy remembers a trend, in Christmases past, towards full-bodied, buxom trees but this has now given way to trees that are shorter, narrower and lighter – able to be easily carried under an arm. Buyers increasingly want a tree they can bring a home and erect it in the living room without a struggle.

LOGO_IYFF_horizontal-EN-web“Our small tree market, which is a five- to six-foot tree, is growing faster than our six- to eight-foot tree market,” says Keddy, who has been harvesting Christmas trees in Nova Scotia since the 1970s. In spite of the demand, Keddy says smaller trees are hard to find, largely because tree farmers are stuck on supplying the seven-foot trees coveted by box stores.

Although he exported over 30,000 trees in November and December, largely to supply Lowes stores in Ontario and further west, Keddy is thinking small. By next season, he hopes to have completed a three-year conversion of his tree lots to the smaller, five- to six-foot trees.

“You don’t need that heavy, heavy tree,” he says. “Shape it, get it growing and try to get it maybe off the land a year earlier.”

For growers, the adjustment is not proving to be easy.

“Most growers don’t want to sell that tree at five-and-a-half feet because… they look at it and say, ‘In two years that tree will almost double in price.’ And they’re right… if you can sell it,” says Keddy.

The Keddy Christmas Tree Company is an amalgam of family businesses, which started with his father’s 12 acres. Along with his brother, Gerald, Keddy expanded the business in the 1970s, increasing the acreage and selling into the United States. In those days, Christmas trees were sold through greenhouses and garden centres, at small corner stores, and by the growers themselves, out of trailers in parking lots like the ones the Keddys sell from in downtown Halifax.

When Gerald left the business in the 1990s to become a Member of Parliament, Mike started M. Keddy Farm and Forest and acquired Keddy Christmas Tree Company from two uncles. He now has over 300 acres on lots dotted around New Ross, on Nova Scotia’s south shore and spends nine months working towards harvest, shaping and trimming the current year’s crop and managing lots for future years.

Mike Keddy assesses some small trees on one of his lots. (Photo Credit: Jonathan Waddell)

Mike Keddy assesses some small trees on one of his lots. (Photo Credit: Jonathan Waddell)

Over the years, Keddy has become a significant figure in the province’s industry, according to Colette Wyllie, Industry Coordinator for the Christmas Tree Council of Canada.

“Mike is certainly one of the biggest [domestic] exporters,” she says. As well as being involved at the provincial and regional levels, Keddy is currently the president of the Christmas Tree Producers’ Association of Lunenburg County.

Wyllie says Christmas trees generate more than $50 million in revenues in the province of Nova Scotia. Approximately 95 per cent of the one million trees harvested annually are exported; the remaining trees are sold in the province.

Over the next three to five years, Wyllie predicts demand to grow, driven by a number of factors, including the fact that the number of households in the United States is increasing.

One area of growth is in ‘choose and cut’, wherein a growing number of people – driven by nostalgia, a desire for family time, or an eagerness for outdoor activity – are visiting farms and picking their own tree.

“It’s certainly in style right now, particularly with families who really want to make a day out of it,” says Wyllie.

Another trend – and one that Keddy warmly welcomes – is a resurgence in interest in Balsam fir, an aromatic tree that had once lost ground to other species, namely Fraser fir, due to shipping costs.

Wyllie says research shows that people are willing to pay extra to have that Christmas tree smell – which Balsam can deliver – back in their homes. Perhaps for the same reason, artificial trees are also losing their luster with consumers. The number of fake trees being bought is holding steady despite the increase in households. Receding is the belief that they are better for the environment than a live tree.

Keddy argues that the Christmas tree business is carbon neutral, with the trees being a truly renewable resource. Plus, with more and more cities providing mulching services, Christmas trees provide much more to a household than the month they spend indoors, returning to benefit spring gardens and flowerbeds.

With the Balsam’s resurgence and growing markets, farmers hope prices will begin to rise. That, Keddy and Wyllie agree, could inspire younger people to get into the industry, a phenomenon not yet evident.

“Yes, it’s manual labour and hard work,” Keddy says, “but it’s good work. It’s healthy work. At the end of the day, you’ve got to be able to make a living and I would say that you can.”

wiles_clrThis is the final installment in a year-long series of articles about family farming in Atlantic Canada generously made possible by Wile’s Lake Farm Market. The United Nations designated 2014 the International Year of Family Farming.

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