As population soars, so does demand for trees and shrubs

Nursery stock is being shipped in from as far away as Minnesota to meet the demand for trees and shrubs

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Alberta’s population is booming, and so is demand for landscaping materials such as trees and shrubs.

“There’s a phenomenal amount of growth available in the industry right now,” said Cody Brown, general manager at Tree to Tree Nurseries in Gleichen.

“Alberta producers cannot grow enough material to meet market demand… the only thing that will slow you down right now is the price point you want to sell your product at.” The province has about 4,000 hectares dedicated to tree nursery businesses, and the sector generates an estimated $77 million in sales annually. But nursery stock is being shipped in from as far away as Minnesota.

Given the demand, the government would like more Alberta farmers to take a serious look at this business opportunity as a supplement to existing operations or something that could develop into a full-time business, said Toso Bozic, agroforester with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development.

“Opportunities in this business are numerous as cities and towns grow in population and the demand for landscaping trees in new housing developments and on acreages increases,” said Bozic. “One of the steady needs for trees is on boulevards, streets and in city parks and playgrounds.”

And it looks like demand will continue to rise. The province has added a million new residents since 2000 and the provincial government estimates there will be another 2.2 million Albertans by 2041.

The aging population is also working in favour of new entrants to this industry.

“Lots of operators are getting on in age and are going to retire,” said Arnold Heuver, a former Alberta nursery manager who is now a consultant in the sector.

“However, it takes a gutsy, aggressive, solid business-minded person to succeed in this business because it is very much a front-end-loaded investment with little return for the first five years for a startup.”

In addition to patience, potential investors must be very knowledgeable about growing a variety of tree species, said Bozic.

Brown learned the nursery business while working with his father and grandfather on a nursery near Rimbey in the mid-1980s. Drawn by a desire to work outdoors and have time for travel in winter, he came back to it after earning a degree in environmental studies. He established his nursery in 2003 and sold his first trees in 2005.

The company sells both deciduous and coniferous trees with some native to the province and others that have proven successful in this growing zone. That includes paper birch, hawthorn, ash, Siberian larch, ornamental crabapple, hybrid poplar, aspen, cherry, mayday, and lilac — all common varieties seen throughout the province. They also grow conifers, especially spruce, pine and larch varieties.

Planning is key as different tree varieties reach marketability at different times, said Brown. For example, it takes about 10 years for a coniferous tree to achieve 10 feet in height, whereas trees such as birch, ash, and elm reach a salable height in as little as four years.

“You should start marketing the first day that you plant a tree,” he said. “The old saying that if you build it, they will come just isn’t true when it comes to producing nursery stock. I would say that the majority of my time as general manager is spent on marketing and customer relations.”

While it was a good fit for Brown and his family, he said it’s not for everyone.

“It’s like anything to do with agriculture,” he said. “There’s high risk and high rewards if you’re in the right spot at the right time. We spend a lot of time forecasting where we think market trends are going to go.”

Funding is available under Growing Forward 2 for producers wanting to investigate this business opportunity, noted Bozic. The program covers 50 to 75 per cent of some non-capital costs related to researching and planning a new business venture. Under the business skills development portion of the program, successful applicants are eligible for reimbursement for 75 per cent of the costs of approved training courses.

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