Growing and selling Christmas trees has always been a part of life for Wicklow farmer James O’Toole, who grows over 220,000 trees on his farm in Carnew.
A tradition started on a small scale by his father in the 70’s now allows James to work year round.
“I grow over 100 ac of trees and have around 2,200 trees per acre,” says James, who supplies both the UK and Ireland. “There are different types of Christmas trees – I grow silver fir and Normandy fir.
“My dad was a small farmer – he raised a couple of calves and grew 3-4ac potatoes and sold them locally. He got on the trees for a bit of extra income and started selling them before Christmas from a small location in Stillorgan (in South Dublin) which I still have today.
“I always helped him and over time I became more interested in the trees and less in the livestock. I had kept sows and sheep but I decided to give up sows altogether and convert the sheep to the Shropshire sheep that they are to be known good for grazing between trees.”
Growing Christmas trees requires high-quality, well-drained land, says James, who plants his new orchards each fall or spring.
“Your land is claimed for 10 years if you grow Christmas trees – the harvest occurs between the seventh and 10th year,” he says.
“When the trees are younger, it’s all about fertilization and weed control. The ground around the trees needs to be kept clean and that’s where the Shropshire sheep come in. They graze between the trees and mostly do that for me.
“I use a grass trimmer to trim the tougher weeds and then there are specific weeds that you need to backpack spray.
“You don’t want totally bare ground around the trees, you want a bit of cover to keep the ground aerated; the trees are better off that way.”
Trees are like flowers, says James, in that they need to be pleasing to the eye in both shape and color.
“After year four I start pruning the ground – 9 inches to a foot – so we can get a grip at the base of the tree for loading and space for the customer to put their water stand and gifts underneath.
“From there I also start shaping the trees and each tree is tended 5-10 times a year. Christmas trees need a lot of light work: pruning, shaping, and applying guidance.
“The leader is the new part that grows back every year and we try to keep that down to 28-35cm so there isn’t a big gap in the tree. People want a pyramid shaped tree, they don’t want gaps.
“We have to use a chemical to control the leader, otherwise the tree could grow 2.5 to 3 feet each year and you’d be leaving trees with big gaps.
“The product we’re using is a chemical used to ripen apples and it fools the tree into thinking it’s grown longer than it actually is and therefore slows down growth.”
James takes his sheep off the Christmas trees for six weeks in the summer
“The trees are in bud blush during this time and the sheep might snap the tender buds and that would ruin the shape of the trees,” he says.
“The sheep are doing very well because they are always rotated and there is more ground than sheep – I keep about 80 ewes.
“I sell the lambs to other growers and there is a good market for it, but it will probably fill up soon. People are trying to get away from chemicals as much as possible and Shropshires replace the need for high chemical usage when it comes to Christmas trees.
“The ram lambs go to the meat chain.”
During August and September James sorts his trees by size and quality and labels each one.
“The trees are planted in bays and there are 20 rows of trees in each bay. I document what I have in each bay so I know what I have when it comes to harvesting.”
Harvesting the trees is labor-intensive work, says James, and it can be difficult to get help for it.
“For felling the trees, I have machines that you walk behind and that shear the trees on the ground.
“I don’t use chainsaws at all – you need someone certified to use a chainsaw and that’s not always easy to come by. I cut down an average of about 1,500 trees a day myself.”
“The job isn’t easy to come by – just because I have a couple of good guys who come to me part-time all year round and some of the neighbors’ young lads help me out, it would be a nightmare.
“I know Christmas tree growers who can’t find workers to harvest their trees, so they have to leave them in the ground.
“I think it’s going to be a problem for the industry in the future – a lot of young guys can’t lift a big tree because they’re so used to machines. It’s not like when I was young and we were trained to carry a heavy weight.”
To ease the pressure of work, a few years ago James bought elevators to lift the trees onto pallets when they were done harvested and ready for distribution.
“The pallets are 8ft long and 8 feet tall so before I had the elevators we had to grab the trees and throw them over 8 feet in the air to get them in, it was hard work,” he says.
“There aren’t that many young lads these days, probably rightly so.
“Although the harvest is hard work, the rest of the year is not bad at all.”
December tends to be the quietest month on the farm for James because it lets the majority of the trees be harvested and maintenance for the rest waits until January.
“We sell wholesale across Ireland and the UK. Artic Trucks are from the UK to collect the trees — Each truck can take 600-700 trees.
“We harvest throughout November for the UK market and by the end of November everything is for the Irish market.
“Supplying the UK extends our season to around seven weeks.
“The Christmas tree business is unpredictable; I’m well established now, but I hear some growers might sell 500 trees one year and only sell 300 the next year.
“Now in December I am focused on selling direct to customers from the Stillorgan site.
“We open in front of the Stillorgan shopping center from the beginning of December until Christmas Eve. People can come and pick their tree and it’s a nice family tradition – I have regular customers who come back every year.
“Christmas Eve is still one of my busiest days, I get a lot of people coming home for Christmas and they come straight from the airport to get their tree – all the taxi drivers know I’m open until the 24th.
“I usually sell 40-50 on Christmas Eve. They are freshly harvested a day or two beforehand.”
Tips to keep your tree in top shape
According to James O’Toole, there are a few household rules that people should follow when buying their Christmas tree. Simple things like filling your tree’s water level are key to its longevity.
“If you’re selling someone a tree, you should cut off 1cm from the bottom so the tree can drink water,” he says.
“You need a water level and it’s really important not to let it dry up. If your Christmas tree hasn’t been able to soak water for a day or so, it will seal itself up, and even if you refill the water level, the tree won’t be able to absorb any of it, and it will die.
“In my experience, trees are put up too early and then they wither by Christmas. Most people keep their tree until after the New Year, so the best time to buy it is from December 5th.
“It depends on the conditions a tree is kept in, but in general, with good watering, the lifespan is about three weeks.”
One mistake many people make is putting their tree near a radiator, says James.
“Often Christmas trees are placed in a window, and radiators are often under a window, and that intermittent heat affects a tree’s quality,” he says.
“New homes with underfloor heating, contrary to popular belief, aren’t as bad for a tree as putting them next to a radiator in a cold house.
“At the very least, with underfloor heating the room generally maintains a constant temperature that’s evenly distributed throughout the house, whereas with a radiator the heat is mostly in one spot and can really affect the life of a Christmas tree.”
A real Christmas tree is better for the environment than a plastic tree, James points out.
“People often argue that cutting down Christmas trees is bad for the environment, but in reality just 1 ha of Christmas trees absorbs as much carbon as 20 Ac of an old oak forest – this has been proven by Danish studies,” he says
“Plastic trees from China are our worst enemy. They will never be good for the environment and end up in landfill at the end of their life. Real Christmas trees serve a very valuable purpose for the seven to ten years they’ve been growing, and after that, once they’ve been cut and used, they’ll rot, so there’s really no comparison.
“Plus, picking the Christmas tree is a great family tradition – there’s a Christmas spirit you won’t find if you pull a plastic tree from the attic.”
https://www.independent.ie/business/farming/forestry-enviro/forestry/how-growing-christmas-trees-is-a-year-round-full-time-job-for-this-wicklow-farmer-42214586.html How growing Christmas trees is a full-time, year-round occupation for this Wicklow farmer