Making Christmas For The Local Market

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It s a bit early to be thinking about Christmas, but Conrad and Sandy Siewert never really stop the owners of Raven Ridge Tree Farm have been focused on Christmas trees since they planted their first ones in 2003.

Originally we started as a Christmas tree farm but more and more people called wanting landscape trees, so we went into the spruce also, Conrad said during a stop on the West County Ag Tour, organized by Clearwater County.

The Siewerts don t wholesale their trees, instead selling them as choose and cut (the Christmas tree version of U-pick) or to local buyers. There are only about 28 such operations in Alberta and Saskatchewan, mostly because it takes 10 or more years before you see a return, said Siewert.

Nova Scotia is the country s largest producer of Christmas trees, and B.C. and Oregon are also major suppliers. All enjoy a milder climate and can grow trees twice as quickly as their Prairie counterparts. Most trees sold in box stores on the Prairies are usually from outside the region, said Siewert.

In order for these trees to end up in box stores, they re harvested in October or early November and they re cut really early, he said. This is the reason why they re losing their needles.

Trees grown in Alberta or Saskatchewan are harvested after the frost and are more acclimatized to the area so their needles will tend to stay on.

Changing tastes

Predicting what consumers want is also tough, said Siewert. For example, some like the look of a fuller tree while others don t want them because that full growth makes it harder to hang ornaments.

It changes from year to year, he said. In 2003-04, we planted Scotch pine because that was what people wanted. In 2004, it started changing and everyone wanted the balsam fir.

The Siewerts source plugs from a number of Canadian nurseries and will transplant several hundred seedlings each spring into large Styrofoam blocks, where they grow for about a year. Both Sandy and Conrad have full-time jobs outside the farm and this method allows them to transfer the seedlings into the field when they have free time. They use black road fabric to keep weeds down and a fence to keep deer out.

They grow Colorado blue spruce and Meyer s spruce as landscape trees using a pot in pot system, in which the pot is placed in the ground. Scotch pines grow faster than some of the other varieties, so they are sold at a lower price ($13 a foot) compared to Colorado blue spruce (about $20 a foot). Pots in pots need to be sold within about three years or transplanted out into the field. The couple also grows white spruce and balsam fir.

The pot in pots are the only trees watered regularly. All trees overwinter outside and none are fertilized, although herbicides are used and the grass between trees (which are spaced 12 feet apart) needs to be mowed. Seedlings are watered once when they are moved out into the field area. The trees also need to be pruned occasionally and leaders trimmed back to encourage lateral growth and a fuller appearance.

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Inorderforthesetreestoendupinboxstores,they reharvestedinOctoberorearlyNovemberandthey recutreallyearly.Thisisthereasonwhythey relosingtheirneedles.

CONRAD SIEWERT

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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