Christmas tree grower Milt Agate has worked in the Christmas tree business since 1990, but said this year will be his last.
His 34-acre farm in Ilderton, about 30 minutes northwest of London, Ont., has been a staple for Christmas tree shoppers. For decades, families have been visiting to pick out their tree and enjoy a warm cup of hot cider and cookies.
For the past several years, he has seen a decline in sales. To his surprise, demand was high this year — which caused the sales to skyrocket.
"It's been such a weird year, people are just itching to decorate," Agate said. "Families want to get together and this is what is bringing them together."
Now, people are also expecting a lot more from "just a traditional Christmas tree farm", he said.
"They want the wagon rides, they want the petting zoo, the Christmas knickknacks."
Agate said he simply cannot afford that, considering the amount of land, manpower and money he would need to operate. It's pushing him to leave the market.
"When you start adding the experience part of it, you've got to start looking at manpower," he said. "Which I don't have."
Trees at the farm are marked down and selling for $35 apiece, as he is looking to close for good and needs everything to go. With the growing demand, Agate said he should have considered marking them up instead.
The past weekend was a busy one, and most of the supply is gone.
"A lot of people are wanting to come out and get their trees before December," he said.
Agate says he has even been receiving calls from people in Toronto wanting to make the drive down to pick up a tree but has to turn them away as he halted wagon rides and other activities due to COVID-19. This year, no wagon rides, hot cider or cookies are offered because of that reason.
As a farmer, Agate said one of the biggest issues for him is mother nature.
In the early 2000s the farm experienced two years of drought, which made Agate lose 25 per cent of his crop, he said.
Another issue is the time it takes to grow the trees.
Agate said it can take up to 10 years to grow a Christmas tree in "ideal conditions", making it impossible for farmers to increase their supply with this sudden surge that is largely being driven by the pandemic.
Less travel, more customers
"People are wanting to get out, wanting to get trees. They're staying home for Christmas as opposed to traveling — and so we are seeing the numbers on an increase," said Shirley Brennan, executive director of the Christmas Tree Farmers of Ontario.
Farms across the province have experienced tree shortages for the past couple of years, she said, but demand this year has increased substantially.
Brennan told CBC London that COVID-19 increased the demand for trees in particular this season because of the isolation many have felt this year and a desire to get into the holiday spirit.
She said the association has seen a 25 per cent increase in sales across the board.
The tree with the highest demand is the fraser fir which Brennan says "everyone goes for" and is in short supply.
It's not even about the size or the species this year, [people] just want the experience. - Shirley Brennan, Christmas Tree Farmers of Ontario executive director
She said younger generation couples in particular who have recently bought their homes are embracing this tradition as a way of bringing together their families during a trying time.
"This is just one more thing that adds to the family dynamics. Having that real Christmas tree and having that experience, people are really, really embracing that this year," Brennan said.
However, Brennan said the Christmas tree industry is steadily increasing each year.
"Our industry across Canada went from a $53 million industry to a $100 million industry since 2015, so it has been steadily increasing over the years," Brennan said. "And because it takes 10 years to grow a tree, we just can't put more trees in the ground for next year and so it was just a forecast that we couldn't even speculate was going to happen."
She said it's "alarming" that a number of farms have already sold out of the trees they had available for this year.
"I have spoken to farm owners who have said it has been a record-breaking year," she said. "But it's not even about the size or the species this year, [people] just want the experience."