By Tom Collins
PAKENHAM — Looking for a way to increase their Christmas tree business, Paul and Ria Ralph made the move to sell the experience of cutting down a Christmas tree over just buying one.
About three years ago, Cedar Hill Christmas Tree Farm at Pakenham, west of Ottawa, finished building a $300,000 facility that houses a fireplace and a café to go along with a sliding hill, play structure and tractor rides. It’s helped keep customers on the grounds for three to five hours, and has increased annual Christmas tree farm sales by seven to 10 per cent.
“If a business can grow by that each year, then that’s a very healthy business,” said Paul Ralph, who has been selling Christmas trees since 1988. Ralph sells about 2,500 to 3,000 trees each year at his cut-your-own farm, plus about 2,500 wholesale to other farms or businesses such as gas stations and convenience stores.
Debate rages between real and artificial trees over which sells more.
According to the American Christmas Tree Association — which promotes artificial trees — more than 80 per cent of American households with Christmas trees are using artificial ones. But the National Christmas Tree Association, promoters of real trees, says Americans bought 26.3 million real trees in 2014 — twice as many as artificial tree purchases.
Closer to home, the Canadian Christmas Tree Growers Association executive director Shirley Brennan said real Christmas tree sales have increased six per cent a year for the last three years in Canada. At the same time, artificial Christmas tree sales have also gone up six per cent, which shows artificial trees aren’t lasting as long as some might think, she argued. Sales between the two are about equal, she said.
Gary Thomas of North Gower’s Thomas Tree Farm, who grows 25 acres of Christmas trees on his harvest-your-own farm, said the key to a great looking Christmas tree is weed control when the seedlings are young. He occasionally sprays insecticides and herbicides, even though some customers say they are against it.
“People want to be environmentally friendly, but then they’ll phone back and complain because they have some kind of worm or bug or something that hatches out on the trees,” he said.
“They don’t want you to spray it, but they want a perfect tree.”
The Christmas tree business is busy enough that Thomas has to hire two or three summer students to prune, mow and work on construction projects, and about 15 people for the first two weekends in December.
Thomas said he has yet to be pressured by a politically correct group to change the name from Christmas trees to holiday trees.
“It’s like the joke: balsam fir Christmas trees are $60, holiday trees are $100,” said Thomas. “So if you want a holiday tree, you can get one.”