Brad Clements, 82, has been growing Christmas trees near Milton, Ont., since the 1980s but is getting ready to pack it in.
“We’re looking at closing it up in the next year or so, if not sooner,” said Clements, owner of Clembrook Christmas Farm.
Clements and his wife aren’t passing the business on to a family member, and say the property likely won’t continue on as a Christmas tree farm.
He’s not alone.
One of the factors driving a protracted Christmas tree shortage is the aging population of tree farmers, says Shirley Brennan, executive director of the Canadian Christmas Trees Association.
In the last 10 years, Canada lost 1,017 Christmas tree farms and 19,165 acres of Christmas tree farmland, according to Statistics Canada.
Much of that loss has been due to farmers retiring or passing away, Brennan said.
“When I look at those numbers in those areas, I know that’s what’s happening because I know those tree farmers that are no longer operating,” said Brennan, who says the association’s membership is about 70 years old on average.
It’s a heightened example of a broader problem facing Canadian agriculture.
Census data shows farmers — both Christmas tree and otherwise — are aging at a faster clip than the overall population. Royal Bank of Canada economists warn the trend will likely worsen an existing agricultural skills shortage in the years ahead.
“It’s not only for Christmas tree growers, it’s also for canola, soybean growers as well — it’s a trend we’re seeing across the economy,” said Mohamad Yaghi, agriculture and climate policy lead for RBC Economics, and lead author of a report from earlier this year about the demographic transition in agriculture.
Cost of doing business
Across the agriculture industry, cost has become a major barrier to entry for younger, would-be farmers, said Yaghi. He noted a tractor can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, to say nothing of the add-on equipment that’s often needed.
“Agricultural land has gone up significantly, the cost of technology has also gone up significantly, and when we look at the support mechanisms available to younger producers, they’re not very plentiful right now, unfortunately,” he said.
Christmas tree farmers also have to contend with a particularly long lag time between setting up their farm and earning their first profits. It can take between eight to 14 years for a tree to grow to maturity, which means a new farmer may not see a return on their investment for about a decade.
Erika Bodnaruk, 57, owns the Country Mouse Tree Farm near Medicine Hat, Alta., with her husband, Gerald. The couple started planting Christmas trees in 2008 and opened for business in 2017.
They plan to retire in their mid-60s but are making plans well ahead of that. Their two kids live too far away to inherit the business, and Bodnaruk said it will likely take time to find an interested buyer who can afford to take it over.
“If it’s not given to someone who is in the family, it needs to be an established business(person) already,” she said. “There’s so much out and not very much in for so many years — it’s not for the faint of heart.”
Farmers, skills wanted
An aging agricultural workforce could have implications not just for seasonal decor but for the economy more broadly.
Last year, the agriculture and agri-food sector generated $143.8 billion, or around seven per cent of Canada’s gross domestic product (GDP).
But the RBC Economics report says Canada already has one of the worst skills shortages among major food exporting countries, and predicts the situation will likely worsen with an estimated 40 per cent of farmers set to retire in the next decade.
That means the sector will not only need new farmers, but new skills in order to grow more food with fewer emissions, according to the RBC report. And while Canadian admissions to agricultural schools are strong, the report noted they still fall short of what’s needed.
Another dimension of the problem is that while students used to attend agricultural college intending to return to the family farm, a growing number now want to work in agriculture in a non-producer role, such as in supply chain management or agribusiness, according to Jay Steeves of Olds College of Agriculture and Technology.
“They still want to be a part of agriculture and they want to contribute to it, but potentially looking for different ways to be able to share their knowledge and their experience,” said Steeves, dean of the college’s Werklund School of Agriculture and Technology, which is located about 90 kilometres north of Calgary.
“It’s concerning because I think we still need a certain percentage of students that have the education to head back and still operate at the producer level.”
It’s a complicated problem to solve, he said, but part of the solution lies in offering more hands-on opportunities for students to give farming a try, such as through the college’s nearby smart farm.
“Some students come with no agriculture background and really want to jump into the field, and so we have that ability to expose them to production,” he said.
‘It’s pretty charming’
As for Brennan, she has reason for optimism in the Christmas tree sector. There is a small but growing number of younger people out there who are picking up Christmas tree farming as part of a broader agri-tourism business, she said.
To make the finances work, these new farmers might also grow pumpkins in the fall or sunflowers in the summer to entice more year-round customers, especially during the decade it takes to get a new Christmas tree crop off the ground.
Brennan has also taken it upon herself to act as a one-woman PR machine, picking up the phone from anyone who calls interested in getting into the business.
Bodnaruk, the farmer near Medicine Hat, is also willing to make a pitch. While farming may not be for the faint of heart, she said it can also be plenty heart warming.
“I mean, who doesn’t want to own a Christmas tree farm? It’s pretty charming,” she said.
“Just seeing the smiles and the giggles and watching the kids run in the tree fields — it really brings back the whole spirit of Christmas.”