Good grief! Could fresh Christmas trees be COVID's next shortage?

·3 min read

Much like toilet paper, yeast and freezers before them, Christmas trees could be hard to score this year because of the pandemic.

There’s a longstanding shortage in Canada’s supply of fresh trees that when coupled with an anticipated heightened demand could leave some families feeling like victims of the Grinch.

“It is an odd year,” said Shirley Brennan, executive director of the Christmas Tree Farmers of Ontario, an industry umbrella group. “We knew in August we would be out of trees . . . (our farmers) would sell all the trees they possibly could this year.”

Brennan said the industry is projecting a hot market for fresh trees this year, with more families staying home for the holidays, meaning inventory could sell out quickly.

She said all wholesale orders for pre-cut trees have been filled, but there simply isn’t enough product to meet all the demand, a challenge that growers also faced last year.

“You may not get the species of tree or the size or the shape of tree that you’re used to,” Brennan said. “But that doesn’t mean there are not trees out there.”

Expect the gold standard Christmas tree, the Fraser fir, to be snapped up early.

Brennan said the long-term shortage, felt across North America, has been caused by many factors, including the growing price of farmland, droughts in British Columbia and Christmas tree farmers retiring.

Demand for fresh trees also skyrocketed in 2015 and has remained high since. But with farmed Christmas trees needing 10 years to grow, it has been nearly impossible for tree farmers to keep up, Brennan said. “The demand grew so rapidly, and we couldn’t forecast that.”

Cut-your-own tree farms are also expecting to be busy this year as families search for safe outdoor winter activities.

“This holiday, families are looking for something to do because they can’t go to Disney World or travel abroad, so they’re looking for something local,” said John Sloan, a tree farmer and owner of Sloan’s Village near Bothwell. “Going to a farm and cutting down a tree is going to be popular.”

Sloan sells trees both wholesale and retail. Last year, he shipped 15,000 trees wholesale. That’s dropped to 5,000 this year as he opts to keep more for the local market.

Sloan’s Village operates two locations, with one a Christmas adventure park and the other normally for tree cutting only. But because of the pandemic, he’s expanded the activities, including train rides, campfires and zip lines, to both locations to accommodate the expected demand and physical distancing.

Brennan said all tree farms in Ontario have adopted COVID-19 safety protocols, and many are offering online ordering and curbside pickup.

“(We want to) make it so you can still enjoy your tradition and make your memories, and accommodate your concerns,” she said.

That search for tradition and holiday cheer amid a tumultuous year could be a driving factor in Christmas tree sales.

“Family and home have been the most important thing this year, and I think that’s going to go right through the Christmas season,” Brennan said. “That’s our forecast as tree farmers.”

maxmartin@postmedia.com

Max Martin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press