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Less water, fewer farmers: Why BC Christmas tree farms are at risk

Saanichton Christmas tree farmer says overnight irrigation now standard practice

By Nina Grossman
December 14, 2022
Latest News
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Less water, fewer farmers: Why BC Christmas tree farms are at risk

Saanichton Christmas tree farmer says overnight irrigation now standard practice

By Nina Grossman
Dec 14, 2022
Joan Fleming, owner of the Saanichton Christmas Tree Farm, said overnight irrigation saved many of her trees from drying out during this year’s fall drought. Photo: Provided
Joan Fleming, owner of the Saanichton Christmas Tree Farm, said overnight irrigation saved many of her trees from drying out during this year’s fall drought. Photo: Provided
Latest News
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Less water, fewer farmers: Why BC Christmas tree farms are at risk

Saanichton Christmas tree farmer says overnight irrigation now standard practice

By Nina Grossman
December 14, 2022
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Less water, fewer farmers: Why BC Christmas tree farms are at risk
Joan Fleming, owner of the Saanichton Christmas Tree Farm, said overnight irrigation saved many of her trees from drying out during this year’s fall drought. Photo: Provided

Joan Fleming, owner of Saanichton Christmas Tree Farm, has seen the damage the heat of the past few years has wreaked on her fellow tree farmers across the province. “Some farmers lost their whole crop. They couldn’t sell their trees.”

But Fleming has been selling hundreds of Christmas trees off her Peninsula lot each day, and hasn’t had any issues meeting demand. She said that’s because for several months, she irrigated her five-acre Saanichton lot overnight, when there would be less evaporation loss.

“If I had watered during the day the heat would have cooked the needles off,” she said. “I was very lucky I thought of doing that [overnight], otherwise I would have been in big trouble.”

Fleming has another 50 acres of trees—a huge variety of fir and pine trees—growing in the Cowichan Valley. The high elevation of that farm spared the crop from the drought that decimated other trees, she said.  

Christmas trees grow roughly one foot per year, and require a great deal of work—pruning, fertilization—in the off season. Though she sells some trees to Hallmark movie sets throughout the spring, summer, and fall, most of Fleming’s income comes from only one month of the year.

“I’m very, very fortunate, compared to other people,” she said.

Larry Whitehead, director of the BC Christmas Tree Association, said Christmas trees typically take seven to nine years to reach the height at which they can sell, and the recent weather events—floods, heat and most recently, several months without rain—is particularly affecting seedlings and younger trees.

The impact of climate change could take a few years to really show up in the Christmas tree market, he said. But some practices are already shifting.

“When I started growing trees 12 years ago, we didn’t irrigate,” said Whitehead, who runs Red Truck Farms in South Surrey. “If you can rely on the rain every year at the appropriate times, you wouldn't need to irrigate. Now it’s imperative you irrigate young crops and seedlings.”

Victoria’s overall humidity has dropped 4% since 1940, and moisture deficits are expected to keep growing across southern BC and the coast—likely contributing to irrigation becoming standard practice for most farmers.  

But the shortage being felt today is mainly due to a lack of growers, Whitehead said.  

“We have about 100 members in the [BC Christmas Tree] Association, but we previously had two or three times that number,” he said, noting that some of the more successful operations are those that are taken over by succeeding generations.

Agriculture has been a tough sell for young British Columbians. A 2020 study of BC’s agriculture sector cited an overall trend of fewer young people selecting the industry for their careers.

“Farming is a way of life and either you love it or you don’t,” Whitehead said. “And farmland is very valuable now.”

Seven percent of the land within the Capital Regional District is protected for farming under the Agricultural Land Reserve.

But even if fresh-cut trees might be harder to source, Whitehead doesn’t mince words when it comes to fake trees, which are produced primarily overseas and often contain oil as a main ingredient.

“Ultimately, they’ll end up in the landfill and they don't decompose for many years," he said..

“It’s a terrible product that’s bad for the environment.”

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Nina Grossman
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