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Nolan Hartlin looks for a place to squeeze in the last Christmas tree onto a tractor trailer flatbed at the Higgins Family Christmas Tree lot near Middle Musquodoboit, N.S. The trees will be shipped to the family retail shop in Massachusettes. (PAUL DARROW For The Globe and Mail)
Nolan Hartlin looks for a place to squeeze in the last Christmas tree onto a tractor trailer flatbed at the Higgins Family Christmas Tree lot near Middle Musquodoboit, N.S. The trees will be shipped to the family retail shop in Massachusettes. (PAUL DARROW For The Globe and Mail)

Canada Competes

Christmas tree exports more ‘ho hum’ than ‘ho ho’ Add to ...

Unlikely as it might seem, a Canadian company has even exported Christmas trees to Azerbaijan – a predominantly Muslim country.

“Four years ago, a buyer wanted a shipment of live trees. It shouldn’t have happened because countries don’t allow trees to be imported with balls of soil around their roots,” recalls Arthur Loewen, co-owner of Pine Meadows Tree Farms Ltd. in Chilliwack, B.C.

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“The guy said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ve got the permits.’ When I asked him how he managed to do that, he said: ‘KGB,’” Mr. Loewen says.

The buyer had a standing order for another shipment the following year, “but when we tried to get information about the permits then, the government had no record of him. His phone number was dead. He’d disappeared. Maybe the KGB put a stop to it,” Mr. Loewen recalls.

Canadian holiday greenery makes its way around the world, but Christmas tree exports have been on the decline since 2006, according to the latest figures from Statistics Canada.

In 2003, Canadian farms shipped 2.62 million Christmas trees valued at more than $38-million to other countries, including Japan, the Netherlands, Thailand, Venezuela and a host of countries in the Caribbean, according to numbers compiled by Statscan’s international trade division.

By 2008, the number of border-crossing trees was down to 1.77 million, but the value was still more than $34-million.

In 2011, the most recent year with totals, the exports had slipped to 1.73 million and the value to $28-million.

These days, Mr. Loewen doesn’t make an effort to sell his B.C. trees overseas.

“We end up importing 200,000 Christmas trees into the province every year because we don’t grow enough. A big reason is competition from Washington and Oregon and even the eastern United States, where farm land is much cheaper,” he says.

Growing trees will never pay for B.C. land that’s selling for $60,000 an acre, Mr. Loewen explains. “We grow trees on rented plots; to make a profit on land if we had to buy it, the trees would have to sell for double what we can get for them now.”

But even leasing land is getting more difficult. Douglas fir can be harvested in five years; Fraser fir takes seven to eight years and sub-Alpine fir can take 12 years. “That’s a long haul and these days a lot of owners don’t want to commit to leasing their land that long” Mr. Loewen says.

The equation is better in eastern Canada, but exports are down by almost 50 per cent from 2003 totals even in Nova Scotia, whose farmers last year shipped more than 400,000 trees to the United States, nearly 87,000 to Panama and even 528 to the United Arab Emirates.

There’s a continuing effort by the Christmas Tree Council of Nova Scotia to expand the export market, says Matthew Wright, owner of M. Wright Farm and Forest Ltd., who exports about 8,000 of his trees a year to buyers in New England.

They’ve set their sights on fast growing economies in Asia, Brazil and some Central American countries as potential growth markets and they’re working with agriculture officials in countries that currently don’t receive Canadian trees to get agriculture protocols and pest inspection agreements in place for imports, he says.

“We’d love to open exports to the U.K. and the European Union – France in particular – and we’re seeing buyer interest, but imports are currently not allowed because of their fears about spruce bark beetles,” he says.

That’s not a legitimate issue for the species sold as Christmas trees, he says. “No Christmas tree producer has ever found a spruce bark beetle in any young tree they grow. It’s just not the habitat or the bark style that they eat.”

He says the Christmas tree council has scientific evidence to back that up. “As producers we think the bans are protectionist, rather than based on any potential threat,” Mr. Wright says.

A major reason for falling exports to existing markets has been a steady trend toward artificial trees. Last year, Canadians bought $47-million worth of fake trees, almost all imported from China. That’s way up from $20-million in 2001, according to Statscan.

To counteract the trend, tree growers are promoting the message “nothing says Christmas like a real Christmas tree,” says Shirley Brennan, executive director of the Christmas Tree Farmers Association of Ontario in Palgrave, Ont.

But this year is not likely to see a respite from the pattern of dropping cross border sales. It used to be the Canadian dollar that was the problem, but as the loonie has strengthened, the economy of key importer United States has remained weak, she explains.

“People in the States are not going all out on Christmas. Some houses used to have two trees and now they only have one,” Ms. Brennan adds. “And it certainly doesn’t help that Hurricane Sandy has people along the East Coast focusing on recovery rather than on Christmas.”

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