Quebec Christmas tree producers expect a record year in 2020

"Personally, we don't see COVID affecting us," said Canadian Christmas Tree Growers Association president Larry Downey, whose farm in Hatley, Que., sells up to 30,000 Christmas trees annually.

MONTREAL, QUE.: NOVEMBER 29, 2020 -- Christmas tree vendor Guillaume Dubuc carries a tree through the lot at Atwater Market in Montreal Sunday November 29, 2020. (John Mahoney / MONTREAL GAZETTE) ORG XMIT: 65406 - 1259

That shortage of supply has pushed up prices. Downey says Christmas trees are retailing for about $5 more this year, continuing a trend that has been evident for several years. The average price of a tree rose 123 per cent to US$78 in 2018 from US$35 in 2013, according to the U.S. National Christmas Tree Association.

Prices are also spiking in Canada. Stéphane Bernier, who runs Plantation Bernier in Lac-Brome, and Bronwyn Harper, who co-owns the Hillcrest Tree Farm near Ottawa, both say they have raised prices for Christmas trees this year.

On top of the shortage, tree sellers are expecting strong demand from consumers looking for an outdoor, physically distanced activity and want to add some holiday cheer to their homes, where people are spending more time amid the second wave of COVID-19. The pandemic has already led to some greater than anticipated spending on home improvements, a trend that could augur well for Christmas tree sales.

Some trees, such as Fraser firs, are extremely sought after. Harper says she is selling Fraser firs for around $85 — $20 more than last year — after her supplier raised prices. She says she can’t grow them on her property because of the terrain.

The expected demand for Christmas trees has triggered a rush by some retailers to purchase more trees wholesale.

Phil Quinn, co-owner of Quinn Farm near Montreal, says he had to buy additional trees from wholesalers because he didn’t grow enough on his own property to meet this year’s expected demand. Harper says she has received numerous calls from people looking for wholesale trees, although she only sells to retail customers.

“Everyone wants a tree and they want it now,” says Quinn, who expects to be sold out of trees by the second week of December.

But if demand for trees is expected to be strong, the pandemic has created its own set of challenges for vendors. Most sellers will not be able to offer additional attractions this year, such as wagon rides and photo ops with Santa, because of physical distancing regulations.

Harper says her biggest challenge this year will be developing clear distancing rules for people picking up their trees. The farm’s owners won’t allow people to bring their dogs, nor will they offer horse-drawn wagon rides. And rather than serving hot apple cider, Hillcrest Tree Farm will be giving people sweets to take away when they leave.

Meanwhile, Serge Lapointe, the owner of Plantation JLS in Ste-Angèle-de-Monnoir, says his Quebec farm won’t offer Christmas tree buyers the opportunity to gather this year, unlike in previous years when it featured rides and the chance to take a photo with Santa.

One element of the Christmas tree market to watch this year will be how lockdown orders will have an impact on the way people buy trees, including whether they go in person to pick them up or order them online, says Paul Quinn (no relation to Phil Quinn), an analyst at RBC Dominion Securities who monitors Christmas tree sales from year to year.

Retail tree vendors could also face some competition from large online players. The websites of Home Depot and Walmart list natural Fraser fir trees for sale, available for delivery before Christmas. A search on Amazon’s website yielded no results for natural Christmas trees, although the company offers a variety of artificial trees for sale.

But Phil Quinn says people are simply looking for a chance to pick out their own tree in person.

“People are just asking for some kind of normalcy,” he said.

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Canadians in the market for a real Christmas tree this year had better start shopping early and be prepared to pay more, says the Canadian Christmas Tree Growers Association (CCTGA).

Producers expect 2020 to be a record year for sales. CCTGA president Larry Downey says it’s simply a question of supply and demand: a shortage of trees versus a large demand on the part of those who need to brighten up their lives at time when they are forced to spend a lot of that time at home.

“Personally, we don’t see COVID affecting us,” said Downey, whose family farm in Hatley, Que., sells up to 30,000 Christmas trees annually.

Most wholesale farmers Downey has contacted this year have already reached sales records, he added, with much of the demand coming from suppliers in the United States. Retailers usually place their orders for trees as early as June, Downey says.

The Christmas tree market continues to feel the effects of the Great Recession, which forced many U.S. growers out of business and others to reduce planting. Since saplings take eight to 10 years to reach the size of a typical Christmas tree, the effects of the lower supply have only recently begun to appear.

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