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The Globe and Mail

Nova Scotia growers in search of perfection

A Balsam Fir tree at the Jollitree Farm U-Cut in Hilden, N.S.

Paul Darrow/The Globe and Mail

Millions of dollars are being spent in Nova Scotia in pursuit of a dream: the perfect Christmas tree.

Perfection in this case is a shapely, fragrant balsam fir with a lush canopy of boughs that refuse to shed a single needle.

For a man named Forrest who grows trees in Middle Musquodoboit and the province's other growers, it is important to get it right. The industry is crucial to rural Nova Scotia, which has been bleeding jobs because of plant closings and changes in other traditional industries. Competition is stiff, not only from North Carolina, with its abundance of cheaper but less fragrant Fraser fir trees, but, more importantly, from proliferating artificial trees.

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In Lunenburg County, farmers at an experimental lot are grafting scions – shoots of other firs – onto balsam firs, looking at the possibilities of advancing seed production and investigating how boughs could be developed for wreaths or garlands.

At a laboratory in Truro, a scientist is researching everything from artificial roots to needle retention and the aroma from the balsam fir – is it too much or too little?

"We need to really exhaust every single, possible question," says Raj Lada, a scientist at Dalhousie's Faculty of Agriculture and the head of the Christmas Tree Research Centre.

The Christmas tree business provides the equivalent of about 800 full-time jobs and annual exports of $35-million in Nova Scotia. The province exports nearly 1.3 million trees every year.

"The perfect Christmas tree is still a dream one, basically," Dr. Lada says. It has very low or no needle loss; a dense fully covered canopy and few gaps between boughs. It should have no pests or diseases.

"And it should have a wonderful aroma," he says. Even this, however, is controversial.

Dr. Lada says that not everyone likes a fragrant balsam fir, so he is experimenting with cloning trees that have a less powerful aroma. In addition, his team is trying to figure out if the strength of the scent leads to more or less needle retention.

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At present, he notes, a tree could lose its needles in as little as six days. But Americans want their trees from Thanksgiving through to the middle of January.With Americans now wanting Christmas trees right after their Thanksgiving in November, trees must keep their freshness for weeks – until at least the middle of January.

"It's a recent challenge for us," says Dr. Lada. "They want to have needles retained for at least 120 days." He hopes within a year to come out with a spray or something that would dissolve in water to keep cut trees fresh longer.

He has nearly $6-million in funding from various agencies to figure this out.

Growers also worry that they are losing ground to artificial tree producers.

Forrest Higgins has been in the business for decades, and has watched his market share dwindle. Since 2003, the export of Christmas trees has dropped by about 8 per cent. He blames the artificial tree.

"There are some 300 million people in the U.S. and we are selling the same number of trees we did 25 or 30 years ago and that means we've lost some of that," he says in an interview from his tree lot near Boston.

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He exports about 30,000 trees annually.

"The perfect tree for me is a fragrant, fresh balsam with a lovely aroma, with a nice shape and good colour," he says, adding, "it can't be too wide."

Trends are changing, too. Growers note that, 20 or 30 years ago, the tree of choice was eight feet tall. Now, consumers want smaller trees. Prices vary widely, but a four- to five-foot balsam fir tree, for example, would cost between $12 and $25.

Although he believes this year is shaping up to be a strong one, Mr. Higgins worries that not enough is being done to promote Nova Scotia's "real" trees. The Christmas Tree Council of Nova Scotia is planning to survey its members about what can be done. It believes it has a compelling story, especially for environmentally conscious consumers.

Council executive director Angus Bonnyman points out that balsam firs can be composted and remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and that an acre of trees provides oxygen for 18 people. Nova Scotia has 30,000 acres of Christmas trees.

"I think the generation of today ... between 17 and 35, their tree now is the real tree," says Bruce Turner, a long-time farmer and president of the Lunenburg County Christmas Tree Producers' Association. "It's got to do with the environmental factors more than anything we've done with promotion."

Dr. Lada, meanwhile, believes there's more to a Christmas tree than lights and ornaments. "It is a great healer. It brings into the home that fragrance and aroma. When you open the door and let the fragrance come in … those are probably having healing effects for us."

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