From: Kathy Johnson – Saltwire

Field trials are underway for naturally made in Nova Scotia balsam fir Christmas trees that are SMART (senescence modulated abscission regulating technology).

“It’s a game-changer for us,” said Andrew Crouse, president of the Lunenburg County Christmas Tree Producers’ Association. “We’ve had interest from Quebec, New Brunswick, P.E.I. … there’s going to be a lot of interest in these trees when they start getting out in numbers.”

Andrew Crouse, president of the Lunenburg County Christmas Tree Producers’ Association, talks about the Christmas tree industry at a holding lot, where locally grown trees await export to the U.S. – Kathy Johnson

SMART trees were developed at the Atlantic Christmas Tree Research Centre in Truro and are healthier, longer-lasting trees that have been naturally selected to hold their needles for up to three months, making them more attractive to international markets.

Crouse said the project was started about 10 years ago. The problem, said Crouse, is that although balsam firs have a lovely aroma, they tend to shed their needles.

“The U.S. has developed the Fraser fir, a breed of tree that grows in New England that doesn’t lose its needles but has no aroma. It’s like a pine tree. You can beat it and it never gives up its needles. We need a tree that is comparable.”

Working with “the best balsam fir trees that nature had to offer,” the trees were cloned and are now on trial in the ground, said Crouse. “The technology to clone these trees has thrown us a few curveballs,” he said. “The balsam fir is not giving up its secrets like the spruce tree would. It’s a little bit ornery. The true test will be when you take a branch off and let it dry out and shake it.”

The Department of Agriculture provided funding to support the development of the SMART tree through the province’s Building Tomorrow Fund.

“The work has been going well,” said Nova Scotia Minister of Agriculture Keith Colwell. “The research and development plan has been completed and various plots across the province have been selected and prepared for the field trial project. This step will give producers a chance to plant SMART seedlings and to learn more about their growth characteristics and potential benefits. It will help producers be more prepared when they take this new product to market.”

Considering it took 20 years to get the honeycrisp apple brought to market and commercialized in numbers, Crouse estimates they are about halfway there with the SMART tree.

“I think it’s going to be a huge game-changer,” he said. “These trees will grow in rural areas and will create jobs. I think there is a great future for the Christmas tree and greens industry in Nova Scotia and Atlantic Canada.”

In the 2016 Census of Agriculture, there were 319 farms in Nova Scotia reporting Christmas trees grown for sale with 6,179 hectares of land in Christmas tree production.

“There’s a lot of work to it,” said Crouse, who has been growing Christmas trees since he was 11. “It can be cold and wet. You got about four weeks to make on what you’ve grown that year that’s ready for sale. Four years ago, you couldn’t sell a two-foot tree. Today that’s rocket gold. If you grow tabletop trees and are good at it you can make some serious money at it.”

Forty years ago, a seven to eight-foot tree was a standard tree, said Crouse. Today six to seven-foot trees are the biggest seller. Brush can also be grown for wreaths and garlands.

“The greens industry is quite big as well, very profitable,” said Crouse.

According to the latest data in 2019, Nova Scotia Christmas tree exports to international markets were worth $9,476,878; in 2018, $6,701,304; and 2017, $7,071,894. The United States is by far the largest market, said Colwell.

Origins and growth of the Nova Scotia Industry

According to the Nova Scotia government website, the first Christmas trees exported from Nova Scotia were likely shipped by Arthur Manual of Chester Basin in 1922 or 1923. Manual was an elderly man who had a rooming house business to run, so he turned his business over to her father-in-law, Robin Hennigar. Newspaper clippings state Robin (Bob) Hennigar first shipped two carloads of Christmas trees in 1924. The clipping also states only one other person was in the business when he started. Bob’s business expanded and peaked in the year of his death, 1948, at exactly 250 carloads (150 carloads out of Chester Basin). This made him the largest individual exported in Canada at the time. Bob brought trees from Cape Breton to Annapolis and shipped out of most railyards of the province. His sons Kirk, Theodore, and Linton carried on the business for a number of years under the name Kirk S. Hennigar, Christmas Tree Shippers.

A veteran Christmas tree grower, Rex Meister, stated he hauled a truckload of Christmas trees from New Ross to the United States in 1955. He also stated Robie Kaizer of Western Shore, Lunenburg County hired the first truck to export trees in 1954. Between the mid-1950s and the 1980s, the transportation of trees changed from almost exclusive use of the rail system to almost exclusive use of trucks and the highway system. Containers are now used for Caribbean destinations.

According to the Department of Lands and Forest’s report on the Christmas tree industry prepared by R.R. Murray in 1948, the first trees from eastern Nova Scotia were exported in 1932. One of the early pioneers in this area was Seward Feltmate of Goshen. He was one of the first to practice spacing, under pruning, stump culture, and butt scoring. Murray’s report reveals stumpage paid to landowners averaged about five cents per tree, roadside price averaged seven to 10 cents per tree, and bales F.O.B. (freight on board) car were 35 to 60 cents each. Prices were very erratic because of the competition and because most woodlot owners sold their trees “lump sum, roadside” (culls included).

Many American exporters had a significant role in the trade as well. The John Hofert Company had a manager in New Ross as early as 1933. The Kirk Company was also established in the community prior to the Second World War. Comparative newcomers included the M. Walter Company (late 1950s), and the Gold Star Christmas Tree Company (1960s).

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