12 December 1997

A seasonal line with little extra outlay to find

By Jeremy Hunt

CHRISTMAS tree growers are gearing up for their busiest few weeks of the year. As families now readily pay up to £30 for their tree, Shropshire landowner Charles Bridgeman says more farmers should be looking at this form of diversification.

"Growing Christmas trees offers the opportunity to increase the profitability of any agricultural holding without significant capital expenditure.

"Most of the resources needed to start and maintain a Christmas tree growing operation are already present on most farms," says Mr Bridgeman of Leaton Knolls Estate, Bomere Heath, near Shrewsbury.

Leisure shopping

He recommends farmers look at retailing trees rather than growing for the wholesale market. The selling season may be short but buying the family Christmas tree is now categorised as "leisure shopping".

"Its a seasonal family activity. People take a lot more time and trouble over their Christmas tree which is often the focal part of the familys seasonal celebrations.

"Demand for the "non-drop" or needle retentive varieties continues to grow and the more expensive Noble and Nordman firs are becoming increasingly popular. These are among the slower growing species, but its an expanding market."

There are several retailing options open to growers. Trees can be sold ready-cut or even grown in pots. But allowing customers to go into the plantation and cut their own tree is becoming increasingly popular and now accounts for 35% of sales.

Mr Bridgeman, who offers a consultancy service and holds seminars on his estate, grows around 2.5ha (6 acres) of Christmas trees. Hes one of 500 UK growers who now take a share in national sales worth £25m a year from 2.7m trees. The Leaton Knolls Estate retails around 1500 trees during December.

Newcomers to Christmas trees should consider growing a few acres to start with and to achieve continuity of supply the area should be planted over a number of years. Good access to the site is important but dont plant in remote areas where there is a risk of pre-Christmas losses through theft.

The best planting time for bare-rooted stock is from November to March. Tree costs for mixed species planting are about £1250/ha (£500/acre). "Time spent achieving a firm, fine seed-bed, buying good quality trees and handling them carefully will pay dividends. Protection from rabbits may be required."

Spruce popularity

Norway spruce remains the most popular species and accounts for 70% of retail sales. But needle-retentive species such as Noble fir and the more expensive Nordman fir, Douglas fir and Scots pine are gaining ground.

Retail prices this year should be £1.50-£2/ft. Growth depends on variety but Norway Spruce will take 6-7 years to develop into a saleable 6ft tree. Noble fir is the slowest growing and takes 8-9 years to reach a marketable size. It needs a climate that can provide 30ins of rain a year and some shelter. Although losses can be high it can retail at £3-£6/ft.

"The prospects for this year are good," says Mr Bridgeman. "British grown Christmas tree sales are increasing each year and now that the public has a greater choice in price and species we expect a stable future for growers.

"Quality is the watchword for growers who aim to retail their own trees. The public is very discerning and demands quality and a variety of sizes. To achieve this demands careful planning before planting and maintaining a high standard of plantation management."

FACTS &FIGURES

&#8226 2.5m trees sold each year.

&#8226 Retail price up to £30 each.

&#8226 Sell rooted, cut or in pots.

&#8226 Good potential for farmers.

&#8226 6-9 year growing cycle.

&#8226 Good quality vital.

Festive cheer…

Christmas trees retailing for up to £30 each make a lucrative alternative enterprise for Shropshire grower Charles Bridgeman. Producing a quality tree is the key, he advises.