By Tom Collins
BOTHWELL — Looking for a way to increase the Christmas tree business, John Sloan sells the experience of cutting down a Christmas tree rather than just buying one.
Sloan’s Village at Bothwell, near Chatham-Kent, estimates that half of the farm’s annual income is from what was a sideline: entertainment. There’s zip lining, horse and wagon rides, pony rides, broomball, a petting zoo, candle making and cookie decorating. There are also 300 campfire locations so a family can have its own fire.
“We’re an hour from most cities,” said Sloan. “To draw people from that far, you need to provide extra. Going out to the farm and cutting a real tree creates a tradition for the family and that is becoming very meaningful for people. People come for the activities and they don’t even buy a tree.”
Last year, about 17,000 customers visited the farm. Sloan — who grows 250,000 trees on 150 acres — estimates that he sells about 3,500 cut-your-own trees annually and about 10,000 wholesale. Some of those wholesale trees have visited exotic places. A few years back Sloan went on a holiday to the Caribbean Islands when he visited an old church.
“There in the corner was one of my trees,” he said. “I recognized my style of trimming. I couldn’t believe it.”
Every field is sprayed for weeds three times a year, every tree is trimmed each year, and every tree is fertilized twice. Because of the manual labour, he has six full-time employees and hires an additional 10 summer employees.
He’s also never been asked to change the name from Christmas trees to holiday trees, he said.
“Christmas started as a Christian celebration,” he said. “People would never consider calling Ramadan something else because it’s a religious festival. Calling Christmas something else is a major insult to a huge part of the population.”
Debate rages over whether real or artificial trees generate more sales. A real tree can cost about $40 to $60. The fake is more expensive and sometimes only lasts a few years longer.
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.
“I think for the most part people prefer a real tree,” said Matthew Whitney of Puddleford Tree Farm at Kent Bridge, about 15 minutes northeast of Chatham-Kent. “They prefer the scent of a real tree and all the tradition that goes with it.”
While some customers may be worried chopping a tree would harm the environment, Whitney said the trees are only grown to be harvested.
“Our farm was a cash crop farm from before we put in the trees, but it wasn’t a good cash crop farm,” he said. “It is a very good tree farm.”
There’s a lot of forward-thinking in managing a tree farm. Whitney started planting trees in 2001, but started selling them in 2010. That’s almost a decade of work before he could start seeing any return on his efforts.
“We are basically planting this year what we anticipate we will be marketing 10 years from now,” he said. “You’re really looking well ahead in trying to pick trends.”
That first year of business, he sold 100 trees. Sales have steadily risen to around 300 last year. Whitney wants to reach the 800 to 1,000 tree mark.
Whitney — who has 10,000 trees over 25 acres — uses drip irrigation, a pipeline constructed under the field which gives him the ability to provide a tree water at the roots each day.
But weather still plays a key role. December weekend rain can impact sales by as much as 50 per cent.
“Everyone is on such a tight schedule,” said Whitney, adding that they open five weekends before Christmas. “If it’s bad weather, (people) go to a grocery store to pick up a tree.”
For Ovide Bastien of Bastien Tree Farm at Essex — who grows 20,000 trees — one of the most difficult parts is trying to figure out where the Christmas tree trend might be a decade from now.
“A lot of people, even farmers, think you grow a tree, you come back and there it is,” he said. “You’ve got to shear them every year. Every tree has different insects attack it. There’s a process that takes a lot more than just planting a tree, coming back in 10 years and there it is.”