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Canada's Christmas tree industry is booming—fir real!

"It's the most popular tree out there: the balsam fir. It's the typical, you know, soft needles and that balsam aroma. Exactly what people think of when they think of a Christmas tree — that nice smell."

Malcolm Pelley, Nova Scotia Program Officer for the Plant Protection Program at the CFIA.

Famous for their aroma, Canadian Christmas trees are sold in the millions across the world. In this podcast, we branch out into the industry through the lens of a Nova Scotian tree inspector.

Canada's Christmas tree industry is booming—fir real! – Audio Transcript

Malcolm Pelley (Guest): What do people think of, when they think of a Christmas tree? I'm a little biased, but I'm not really biased because it is the tree most popular tree out there. It's the Balsam fir with that typical, you know, soft needles and that balsam aroma.

Michelle Strong (Co-host): In Canada, Christmas trees are a whopping $91 million industry, with over 2 million trees being exported every year.

Greg Rogers (Co-host): With the eastern provinces leading the way in production, there's around 1800 Christmas tree farms scattered across the country, working all year round to bring fragrance and tradition to our holidays.

Michelle: Today, we speak with a tree inspector from Nova Scotia who shares stories about the industry and gives us a behind the scenes of how to keep Canadian sales pest free.

Greg: Hey, it's Greg.

Michelle: And it's Michelle, and this is Inspect and Protect.

Greg: A podcast where we like to talk about, well, lots of stuff. But mostly about plant health and animal health and food safety.

Greg: So, Michelle, it's that time of year again. Do you have your Christmas shopping all done? Is your tree up yet?

Michelle: I haven't even started my shopping, but I did put my tree up right after Remembrance Day. I'm one of those people. It was super easy. It's an artificial one, so I've had it for the last couple of years and...

Greg: You have a fake tree?

Michelle: I have a fake tree.

Greg: I didn't peg you as a fake tree person, you know?

Michelle: Oh man, I feel like I need to explain myself. So I actually have 2 fake trees. The first one I got because, when my husband and I lived in the city in a condo, we had condo rules. You're not allowed to have a real Christmas tree because of the mess it makes. So I kept that little guy. And we just got a bigger one now because we're in a house. Yeah, it's mess free. Well, what about you?

Greg: Well, I agree with the big tree part. We go ahead and I take my youngest son and we cut down the biggest one we can find at the local tree lot here. So it's a fun family experience.

Michelle: I remember doing that when I was younger with my parents. Let's bring in our guest. Malcolm is actually an inspector for Christmas trees, among other plants, and he knows the Nova Scotia industry very well.

Malcolm Pelley (guest): I'm Malcolm Pelly. I am the regional program officer for the Plant Protection Program in Nova Scotia Operations for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

Michelle: So Malcolm, you've been in the plant protection space now for over 20 years, right?

Malcolm: Well, that's correct, actually. Yeah, a little over 23 years now.

Michelle: Wow. So would you mind explaining the basics, like how long does it take for a Christmas tree to grow to maturity?

Malcolm: Typically, I mean, it depends on the market that the grower wants to target. They can market their trees anywhere from as small as 3 feet tall. There is lately a market for what they call apartment sized trees. Typically, the standard size tree is going to be the 6 to 7 foot tree. That's what most people will want to put in their house with their 7 to 8 foot ceilings. And then, of course, there are larger trees. We would call them the 10 plus size trees for your larger, you know, houses and shopping malls and stuff like that, businesses. But a tree typically grows about 1 foot per year, so what you can kind of do if you plant a seedling in the ground this year. In 3 years, you could have an apartment sized tree. But typically, it's going to be 7 to 10 years before they have a tree that they would typically send to market for.

Michelle: From your experience looking at these growers, these Canadian Christmas tree producers, are they usually small backyard, rustic type of businesses, or are they giant industrial powerhouses dedicated to this industry?

Malcolm: It's a little bit of everything. So we do have what we call the small, rustic or backyard growers. But that can be just somebody that, you know, they have a regular 9 to 5 job. They go out and they do business. And but they also have some property that is good for growing. Maybe, you know, total production of maybe a couple of thousand trees that they would market, maybe a couple of hundred each year. But then we have the larger ones, producers that would have tens of thousands of trees and production and that they would draw from that each year, you know, selling to other provinces in the country and maybe even some to the U.S. And then of course, we have our larger producers, exporters, brokers. Sometimes we actually have people in the business that actually may not grow trees themselves, but they have the space and the ability to process the trees. So they will buy trees from all the producers and exporters and bring them into their location. It's just like any regular business. There's a chain, there's a supply chain there, that everybody has a place they fit into it. And this broker could buy from those smaller producers and give them a means of income as well.

Michelle: And apparently, our Christmas tree sales in Canada, they've been absolutely booming over the pandemic. Is this actually true?

Malcolm: I would say you could definitely see an increase in Christmas tree sales in the last few years. I'm hesitant to attribute that entirely to the pandemic.

Michelle: Demand for Christmas trees had actually started rising before the pandemic even started. In an interview with CBC, Shirley Brennan, executive director of the Christmas Tree Farmers of Ontario, says that the industry has nearly doubled in the last 5 years alone.

Greg: Part of it stems from the 2008 recession. Growers were hesitant to scale up their operations, and didn't anticipate today's demand. With trees reaching their maturity only 7-10 years later, those decisions can be felt today.

Michelle: On top of this, environmental issues have impacted Western Canada's Christmas tree industry in the last few years. Mudslides and floods made it difficult to access remote trees and slowed deliveries, while wildfires created heat domes and sunburnt trees.

Greg: Even Ontario growers have had challenges this year because of an unusually dry spring & fall season. All of these mitigating factors helped create a market with more demand than supply.

Malcolm: The pandemic is certainly part of it. There's definitely a component that people are wanting to get out of their homes to go to Christmas tree yards, to get outside and, you know, maybe go to a YouCut or shop around at a retail outlet and look at some of the trees that are available. But I think a bigger part of that is that the pandemic has actually caused other problems. We know there's a shortage of containers available, so it's hard to ship product. People that have product are pushing it as fast as they can. And I've had some growers tell me that, you know, it's the client. Alright, now we're into the millennials of that 30 something age now, right, 30 to 40 age, and they tend to be more probable to go to traditional formats. The Christmas tree seems to be one of the things that they've seen some uptake in that, because of that family experience, right? It strikes home.

Greg: What type of risks do fir, spruce and other Christmas trees need to be inspected for and how did they do it?

Malcolm: So there's kind of, I guess, 2 types of pests that we would look for. There are pests on the trees themselves, so these are pests that we know will attack the trees. We have quarantine or regulated pests. So Lymantria dispar dispar is an invasive moth. It's a real, voracious type of pest. It really attacks deciduous trees. Oddly enough, it strips the leaves off of decision trees. It likes oak and maple, which are big Canadian species as well. Unfortunately, with this pest, it lays the egg masses, which will survive or over the winter because you're not going to see moths this time of year. They don't survive. It gets too cold, but it's their other life cycle. It's the egg mass they lay for whatever reason on the basis of Christmas trees. They'll go up a little bit into the tree where it's nice and protected. Hard to find. Hard to see. And that's what we have to inspect those trees for, to make sure that the trees don't have that pest. So we're trying to protect them. We're trying to keep the levels of the mantra at bay or at low levels. But it being an invasive pest, we have areas of Canada that it is not present in, like western Canada and B.C. do not have those elements are present and we do everything we can to try to keep that pest out of that part of the country. And it's the same thing with the U.S. They have, you know, the northeastern part does have the pest, but western U.S. does not have the elements for this. But then you look at offshore markets going down to the Caribbean. Panama, especially Panama, has a list of 5 specific pests that they don't want on their trees. So we have to inspect the trees to make sure they're free from those as well. So it really depends, birds...

Greg: What about squirrels?

Michelle: Has that happened?

Greg: I'm thinking of National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation kind of style.

Malcolm: I have not been attacked by any creatures in the trees myself. I've never heard tell, and nor have we ever seen a case where there's been a squirrel. They're pretty skittish and the amount that these trees are handled, they would have to be set in there for an extensive period of time. For a squirrel that's kind of set up shop in the trees once after the amount they're handled and trucked and loaded. It's not nice, but I have seen cases where a snake, what we would call our brown snake here, the typical Nova Scotia brown snake, you see. The biggest brown snake I've ever seen is probably maybe 2 feet. Right, that's a pretty sized size. We have a case out of southwest Nova Scotia where some of the workers actually found a 5 foot brown snake. He was curled up in the tree. He was up there sunning himself on a particularly warm day. A big snake, not regulated. Not a concern for us in the world. But you can imagine the shock that somebody would see if they'd seen one. We have had cases where we have had a salamander detected in a tree. It happens sometimes. I mean, we're talking, some of these trees are outside in the wild, and we have had Novembers where we've seen -20 degrees Celsuis days, right? And when it's that warm, the creatures get out and move around.

Greg: How many countries do we export trees to like do all countries have the same requirements or are there different requirements for different countries?

Malcolm: Yeah, I don't have the exact number of countries. There are quite a few, but not all countries will accept Christmas trees from Canada because it is what we call a cut live product from the forest. But the United States is our biggest trade partner in regards to most products, but Christmas trees are no exception, and I would say our second most profitable market right now is probably Panama. But there are a lot of other countries. We do have other Asian countries. Japan is one of them in the Philippines or come to mind right off the top of my head. It costs a lot more, obviously in transportation. So it's not a huge market. But there are a few producers that ship as far away as Asia. But most of it is within north and central and a little bit of South America. The Caribbean islands are big market right now, Aruba and Barbados and places like that.

Greg: Do we import Christmas trees from other countries? And if we do, we inspect those too?

Malcolm: On a small scale, it does happen occasionally. The U.S. would be the only place we'd import Christmas trees from. And it would mainly be Western Canada that was doing that for a while just because of the again supply and demand. It was cheaper for our western provinces to actually buy trees from south of the border, but those would be your Fraser firs, which are a little bit different. There are a different shape to them, and they don't have the same aromas as the balsam fir, which is the traditional eastern Canada type tree. But yes, again, those are their forest products and they would be inspected upon entry for pests of concern. But that would be the only case. And even now, that's kind of somewhat dropped back because of supply and demand, kind of on the other side of that curve where there's a shortage of Christmas trees in western Canada, western U.S. that's benefitting eastern Canada at this time.

Greg: I heard that Boston's official Christmas tree this year is actually 60 years old. I think it's a white spruce from Cape Breton. Would we inspect something like that?

Malcolm: So in this case, the spruce going to Boston, it would actually be regulated for the Brown Spruce Longhorn Beetle, which we have here in Nova Scotia. It's one of the pests that we are regulated for. In this case, there's a compliance agreement in place on the U.S. side. So Boston, the city of Boston, actually had to apply to their USDA to get an import permit with a special compliance agreement in place to allow for the movement of that spruce tree from Cape Breton. And what that does is it puts the onus on Boston that when they are done with that tree, that tree will be destroyed completely in its entirety.

Michelle: Wow. I want to get personal and I want to know, and we won't tell anyone, what's your favorite tree?

Malcolm: So, yeah, I was going to say I'm a little biased, but I'm not really biased because it is the tree most popular tree out there. It's the balsam fir with that typical, you know, soft needles and that balsam aroma. What people think of when they think of a Christmas tree, that nice smell. But that's partially because I'm from Nova Scotia. Obviously, that's predominantly what I've been exposed to over my career, over my life. I actually did a little bit of work in the Christmas tree industry before joining the agency as well. So I don't have my own firm, but I have worked for several exporters and producers prior to my career with the CFIA.

Greg: So your retirement plan, exit strategy?

Malcolm: Not at this point, unless I get an opportunity to buy some land already in production at a real good price, which I don't know, we'll see. If the opportunity came along, I wouldn't say no for sure.

Greg: Well, thanks so much for talking with us today, Malcolm. It's been enlightening for sure. Is that pun?

Michelle: Is it?

Greg: Enlightening? Christmas tree lighting ceremony?

Malcolm: I don't know. Oh! I get your pun. I get it. I was a little caught up there.

Michelle: Malcolm's just being polite.

Greg: All right. Well, whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or another holiday or no holidays at all, we wish everyone a great end to 2021.

Michelle: You're listening to Inspect and protect the CFIA's official podcast.

Greg: Michelle, I've got to say it's been a tough year, but starting this podcast is one of the bright points, so it's been a fun time.

Michelle: Honestly, it was really great learning all this cool stuff from the science side, animal health side, plant side. Who knew, right? And when you say Canadian Food Inspection Agency, I don't think this is what people think about.

Greg: For sure. I'm looking forward to some of our topics next year. Food fraud, I think, is on deck.

Michelle: Puppies, even. A sneak peek. Can't wait to see what 2022 brings!

[End of recording]

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