View Count: 118 |  Publish Date: November 30, 2012
Christmas tree lab tries to boost flagging Canadian exports

At Dr Raj Lada’s laboratory, Christmas lasts all year long.
He and his team of researchers can keep up to 80 Christmas trees in two laboratories for 12 months a year. But they represent more than just Yuletide cheer: they’re the future of the Christmas tree industry in Canada.
Lada’s Christmas Tree Research Centre in Bible Hill, N.S., is running a dozen projects that range from cloning the best tree stock to developing compounds to trick the tree into keeping its needles and fragrance longer.
The goal, Lada says, is to create “the perfect Christmas tree.”
As the Canadian Christmas tree industry gets smaller, having lost a third of total revenues in the last decade, Lada’s laboratory might be the ticket to clawing back some of that lost revenue.
Last year, the live Christmas tree industry pulled in $51.3 million, but if it’s to thrive, growers will be forced to adapt to consumers’ tastes. People are buying earlier and demanding a tree that lasts longer indoors.
As far as growing trees for the holidays goes, the Maritimes and Quebec are paramount. Together they account for more than 80 per cent of national revenues. Unlike Ontario, trees grown in the two regions are overwhelmingly destined for export. Nationwide, more than half of Christmas tree revenue comes from exports, and more than 97 per cent of exports came from the east.
Last year, about half the exported trees crossed the border to the U.S., but Venezuela, Jamaica, Cuba and Aruba all take a significant share. As the global market develops, some trees are now going as far away as Thailand and Dubai.
Shipping trees increasingly long distances also presents new difficulties for tree growers. They’re now harvesting as early as October, and need the trees to look their best nearly two months later after transport by truck and air freight.
“The tree must hold its needles for two-three months,” Lada said.
Established in 2010 with $6 million in public funding, the Christmas Tree Research Centre is a leading example of how academic research can contribute to economic development. Industry’s taken note and contributed an undisclosed amount to the centre.
These are tough times for tree growers in the east. Angus Bonnyman, executive director at Christmas Tree Council of Nova Scotia, says increased production in the Carolinas mean that the American northeast is importing fewer Canadian trees.
“Carolinians ramped up production about 10 years ago. Now they’re maturing and we’ve got a glut,” he said.
Larry Downey, a farmer in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, grows 150 acres of fir and says that he’s been more directly affected by the exchange rate.
“Take away 10 per cent of your paycheque each week and you’re going to feel it at the end of the year,” he said.
Making things worse, artificial trees are flooding the market, he says, crowding out his natural trees.
“Us small growers, we can’t compete with these large giants from Asia who import artificial trees,” he said. “Local trees grown in Ontario or Quebec, you can recycle them, compost them and when they grow they produce new oxygen — it’s the better option.”
Lada says his centre — the first of its kind in the world — will make Canada more competitive and create a lasting market for the more environmentally friendly natural Christmas trees.
They’ve started with the Balsam fir, a species quickly emerging as the most popular with consumers in Canada and the United States. Combing through hundreds of specimens, Lada’s research team of 12 has chosen 207 trees based on architecture, resistance to disease, fragrance and needle retention. This genetic stock has been brought into the lab and cloned to avoid having to wait for seeds.
“We’re shortcutting that 10-15 years of time into a mass-production platform,” Lada said, adding that a seed bank is also going to be established for the long term.
Maximum needle retention of their base stock was 70 days. “Our goal is to create a tree that can last 150 days,” said Lada.
But they will need more than just crossbreeding to reach that goal. The next step is studying the physiology of the tree. They look for signal molecules that trigger needle drop and develop ways to block its receptors and stop the reaction process.
The final step is eliminating rough handling and improving the postharvest environment by determining the ideal temperature, light and humidity conditions for transport.
If Lada’s vision comes into being, every step of the way will be optimized — from growing the trees to putting them up in a customer’s house — in order to create the longest-lasting Christmas trees possible.
Ontario farmers target the local
When Brad Clement went into early retirement more than 20 years ago, he took a second look at his familys farm in the shadow of the Niagara Escarpment in Milton.
The land had been leased out and cash cropped for years, but because it was so hilly, much of it was laying fallow.
I wanted to prove that this land could produce something of value to the community, he said as he walked between rows of short, sturdy pines.
Now, decades on, Clembrook Christmas farm incorporates cut your own and pre-cut trees. They offer several varieties of pine, spruce and fir to families from across the GTA and say that business is booming.
The clay-rich soil in Milton is better known for producing bricks than crops, and Clement says that his trees have shorter needles as a result.
But that doesn’t stop people from visiting the farm. Starting in late November, seasonal music is played through outdoor speakers, groups come for tractor rides and hot chocolate is served in the gift shop.
“In Ontario, we have a different focus,” he said.
Ontario accounts for slightly more than 10 per cent of nationwide revenues but less than one per cent of Canadian Christmas tree exports. The business here is local.
Only 2 kilometres down the road from Clement’s farm, contractors are framing up new houses in a development on the edge of Milton.
“It’s farming in the urban shadow,” he said. “This kind of farming works better than most.”

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 cent   Christmas   far   farm   grow   per cent   tree   trees   more than just   Tree Research Centre   Lada 
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