How is this year's Christmas tree market shaping up?

The market for Christmas tree sales in the UK looks brighter this year, with exchange rates helping British growers.

ADAS says current season needle necrosis (CSNN) damage to Nordmann fir is bad in some plantations, especially those in the South West and eastern counties where weather and temperatures have been suitable for infection and development of disease in the early summer. No fungicides are effective in controlling CSNN.

However, Rural Services’ Colin Palmer says it has been quite a light year for CSNN but fir fireweed rust has increased from insignificant levels in the past to making an impact this year. Fireweed rust has been an issue in Ireland and the South West in England, while CSNN has been "around the normal", he adds.

Palmer says 2017 has been a "brilliant year" for tree growth, with "95%" of crops pretty good. There could be a problem in 2018 because leader control in 2017 has not always been successful due to growth rates, he explains.

There will be a "very good supply" in 2017 with no shortages, he forecasts. There will be enough good-quality trees too. "Last year there was a concern about oversupply but in the end all the good-quality trees sold and the ones that had difficulty in finding a market were the seconds. A few artics from Denmark never found a home. It’s all about quality and that’s going to increasingly be the case."

Weather and disease

Snowbird owner Adrian Morgan, who also owns half of The Christmas Cabin, says Kent and the South East have been hit by CSNN "worse than anybody," adding to the notion that the disease is linked to weather rather than pathogens. A lot of South East growers are "very grumbly about it", he notes. In contrast to CSNN, he says rust mite is easy to control using foliar sulphur.

ADAS adds that dry weather and tortrix moths have also impacted newly planted trees, especially in the east and South East England where Christmas trees are planted on light sandy soils. Pheromone trap lures are available. Caterpillars of the second generation cause the most damage. Control can be achieved by applying an insecticide containing indoxacarb.

Another issue Morgan brings up is a lack of skilled staff because Christmas trees fall between horticulture and forestry. Leader control is the "critical process" in managing a good Nordmann and more staff need to be trained to do that, as well as to spray trees and identify pest and disease problems, he adds.

He agrees that the euro is helping British growers and that the Four Oaks Trade Show had fewer Danish growers exhibiting among the 28 Christmas tree companies at the event because of exchange rates, which is "good news for volume producers in the UK". Many growers agree, saying it will ensure stable prices this season. 

But Morgan warns that there a lot of poor-quality trees around Europe that are "difficult to place in the trade because retailers are becoming more discerning about what customers want to buy", adding: "There will always be a home for the standard-quality tree but some are getting too tall now and when they are past ceiling height hope of selling them is low."

Danish grower Kasper Kortegaard says the market for quality cut trees is similar to the past couple of years. "Quality sells in garden centres and generally quality very clearly comes before origin and price." He adds: "It has been a good growing year in most places, but we are still seeing a shortage of higher-quality trees in the market and a glut of lower-quality trees.
"Wholesale prices are similar to last year in spite of the exchange rate having dropped about 10-15%. Our prices are almost identical to 2016. Retail prices also appear like they are going to be similar to 2016. We see British-grown trees having a small competitive advantage in the short term, but it is worth noting that the seedlings, most of the labour involved in producing trees, mostly come from continental Europe and have not become any cheaper. Prices and quality from Scotland seem similar to 2016."

Tree trend

Morgan says the trend is towards slimmer and more open trees because they are easier to decorate. This is one reason why the Fraser fir is gaining in popularity. He adds that quality pot-grown trees are becoming difficult to get and says consumers no longer want potted trees.

British Christmas Tree Growers Association (BCTGA) secretary Harry Brightwell says he had not heard of any CSNN being around this year. He adds that the strong euro helps UK growers and says the market will be "similar to last year".

Brightwell agrees that garden centre retailers should look to UK growers before overseas because the price should be better. He says the market is about 6m-8m cut trees, while pot-grown could reach up to 0.5m.

The BCTGA competition and open day will be held at Beacon Hill Farm, Intake Lane, Wolley Edge, Wakefield, West Yorkshire WF4 2LQ on 17 October. The grower of the winning tree and the runner up will deliver a British-grown tree to Number 10 Downing Street and the best wreath is for the Number 10 door.

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