6 December 1996

A FINE LINE IN FESTIVE PINE

CHRISTMAS is coming and Stephen Smallwood is not getting fat – he can count on losing weight and getting chapped hands in the run up to Christmas, for this is when he swaps his accountants hat for that of mail order Christmas tree supplier.

For most of the year facts and figures fill his days at Upper Munderfield Farm, Bromyard, Herefordshire, where he runs his own accountancy practice with a staff of seven. The 50,000 Christmas trees he grows on 6.5ha (16 acres) of the farms 10ha (25 acres) make little call on his time as he employs a man to come in for a couple of days each week to keep them weeded, trimmed and sprayed, but come November and December its hands-on to fulfil orders.

Last year, prompted by an inquiry from his brother-in-law, he had a good idea for marketing the trees and the direct delivery service was conceived. This year it has grown apace following response to his presence at the Country Living Christmas Fair held in London last month.

"My brother-in-law asked if we could deliver a Christmas tree to his home, and I said it would be barmy to go down to Southampton with one, but then I thought about it," said Stephen. "Then there are the suits, they dont want to get dirty, I thought about targeting offices and offering a collection service. That idea didnt gel initially so we are targeting the domestic market now and are working on the corporate market. We can deliver by carrier anywhere in mainland England and Wales."

Stephen is not a farmer by training, but his parents used to grow Christmas trees on their farm on the Surrey/Sussex border until about 1990 when the farm was sold. By that time, Stephen and his wife Alison, also an accountant, had fled London where they were working when they met, to live in Herefordshire. The farmhouse was ideal for their young family and there was room to run an accountancy practice once the barns alongside the farmhouse were converted. Christmas trees seemed to be a good idea for the land.

"It is quite windy here so we plant small trees, around two years old, bought in from Scotland. We grow five varieties – Norway spruce, Scots pine, blue spruce, white fir and Nordman, and sell them in heights from 18in to 8ft," says Stephen who is a member of the Christmas Tree Growers Association and, wearing his other hat, accountant to the Farm Holiday Bureau.

"The Norway spruce is the tried and tested one. Noble fir was a complete disaster as it didnt like the soil or the climate, others I just try and see. We have always grown a few Scots pine which are sold trimmed heavily and the blue spruce is very pretty. These two were the most popular last year and the blue Spruce is again this year. There is also a lot of interest in the white fir which doesnt drop its needles much, but is not stiff and starchy like the Nordman," says Stephen, who does not sell trees at the farm gate.

"We dont cater for the family that wants to come along and choose a particular tree together," he says.

The trees can be supplied rooted, sawn or potted and Stephen prefers to sell them rooted, even though it makes harvesting them more work. "I maintain that they keep better and even if they are to be sawn they are best delivered with the roots on so they can be soaked for 24 hours before cutting them off," says Stephen, who includes a care leaflet with each tree and will be taking orders up until Dec 18.

For the Country Living show, his wife Alison decorated terracotta pots with water-based paints in 18th century colours embellished with stencilled designs so the trees would not be seen in plastic pots. Now customers have a choice of these decorated pots, wooden barrels or wrought iron stands for the trees.

"We didnt make a profit last year and wondered if we should go ahead this year. I am very glad we did as we had so many positive comments at the show and 3500 people asked for leaflets. Orders started coming in almost immediately.

"We are also offering a collection and recycling service. The tenner charged is almost exclusively carriage, so there isnt much in it for us, but the mulch we make from them is worthwhile. Last year on Twelfth Night the thought of all those trees being thrown out was a bit sad," says Stephen.

He is enthusiastic about the marketing potential of his mail order service and enjoys his part in harvesting and packing the trees, with one reservation. "Every month I take off to do the trees is robbing me of a months accountancy income," he says ruefully.

But hopefully the trees will provide a good profit eventually for if an accountant cant get the books to balance, who can?

Smallwood Christmas Trees (01885-400323).

Is this the Christmas delivery that town dwellers and office managers have been waiting for?

Tessa Gates met the producer who delivers Christmas trees right to the door and will even take them away again on Twelfth Night

Stephen Smallwood directs his Christmas tree marketing towards town dwellers and businessmen. Blue spruce are proving popular again this year, along with heavily trimmed Scots pine.

Danny Hill (left) maintains the trees but its hands-on for Stephen at harvest and despatch time.