Alberni Valley Christmas tree farms escape majority of drought effect

Roy and Kathy Gunter-Smith stand near a grand fir at son and daughter-in-law Cory and Kris Gunter-Smith’s Alberni Christmas Trees farm near the Alberni Valley Regional Airport on opening day of the 2022 season. (SUSAN QUINN/ Alberni Valley News)Roy and Kathy Gunter-Smith stand near a grand fir at son and daughter-in-law Cory and Kris Gunter-Smith’s Alberni Christmas Trees farm near the Alberni Valley Regional Airport on opening day of the 2022 season. (SUSAN QUINN/ Alberni Valley News)
Dani Frances of Mossy Stumps Tree Farm sits with an 8.25-metre (27 foot) tree she is providing to Winter Wonderland at the Alberni Valley Multiplex in December 2022. (PHOTO COURTESY DANI FRANCES)Dani Frances of Mossy Stumps Tree Farm sits with an 8.25-metre (27 foot) tree she is providing to Winter Wonderland at the Alberni Valley Multiplex in December 2022. (PHOTO COURTESY DANI FRANCES)
Dani Frances, owner of Mossy Stumps Tree Farm, pauses at her tree farm with her seven-month-old son in November 2022. (PHOTO COURTESY DANI FRANCES)Dani Frances, owner of Mossy Stumps Tree Farm, pauses at her tree farm with her seven-month-old son in November 2022. (PHOTO COURTESY DANI FRANCES)
Tom Verbrugge and his son Mica have the bonfire stoked and the hotdogs ready to roast when Tom’s Trees Christmas tree farm opens on Nov. 26, 2022. (PHOTO COURTESY TOM VERBRUGGE)Tom Verbrugge and his son Mica have the bonfire stoked and the hotdogs ready to roast when Tom’s Trees Christmas tree farm opens on Nov. 26, 2022. (PHOTO COURTESY TOM VERBRUGGE)

Tree farmers in British Columbia are concerned that wildfires and heat waves have taken a toll on their supply of Christmas trees this year, driving up prices. That’s not the case in the Alberni Valley, though.

Tree farmers around Port Alberni say they weathered a second hot summer in a row and are prepared for Christmas.

The South Island Natural Resource district has six permits to grow Christmas trees, and three of them are at the Alberni Valley Regional Airport, licensed authorizations officer David Paul said. Mossy Stumps Tree Farm, Tom’s Trees and Alberni Christmas Trees all lease land from the provincial government with either a licence or permit.

The tree farms were originally created as a way to maintain the height restriction around the airport. “One of the farmer’s responsibilities is to manage it so the trees do not become overheight for airport safety,” said Dani Frances, owner of Mossy Stumps Tree Farm at the southeast of the runway.

Frances has worked at the tree farm since 2018 when it was still owned by School District 70 and eight hectares in size. When the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District expanded the runway at the airport, the lot was reduced to just over five hectares. Frances has since purchased the tree farm from the school district.

Frances has been doing a lot of replanting on her site. Because of her location, her site is regularly used by local hikers, dog walkers and bird watchers.

She said the drought of the past two summers has affected her replanting more than her mature trees. “My seedling mortality last summer was on average 35 percent for grand fir and 100 percent for the nobles planted in one of my fields,” she said. In 2021 she noticed that the tops of some of her more mature trees were scorched from the sun.

Douglas fir usually fare better during drought, she added. A typical Douglas fir Christmas tree takes eight years to grow, while a noble fir takes 10-12 years until they are at an average height.

“People can count the rings on the trees if they want to know how many years the farmer has cared for that tree—planting, fertilizing, mowing or brushing, shearing and harvesting,” Frances said.

READ: Short supplies, high prices expected for B.C. Christmas trees this holiday season

Mossy Stumps is the only one of Alberni’s three Christmas tree farms that doesn’t offer u-cut on their lot. Frances wholesales her trees to Naesgaard’s Farm and Market in Port Alberni as well as locations in Ucluelet, Campbell River and Duncan. She is also supplying trees for this year’s Winter Wonderland at the Alberni Valley Multiplex, including the 8.25-metre (27-foot) feature tree inside the Coulson Rink.

Business booms for Alberni Christmas Trees

Cory Gunter-Smith, who owns Alberni Christmas Trees near the airport with wife Kris, said recent news reports that there is a shortage of trees this year is exaggerated.

“Things are OK. The summer before last was a bit brutal; a lot of what we planted didn’t survive. We’re in good shape,” he said. He doubts there will be a dip in availability a few years from now when the seedlings that died off should have matured.

This is the third year the Gunter-Smiths have owned and operated their tree farm, having bought the well-established business from previous owners. After a learning curve the first year, they have found their rhythm, said Cory.

Their tree farm is primarily a u-cut lot with some wholesale customers elsewhere on Vancouver Island.

Alberni Christmas Trees opened for the season on Thursday, Nov. 24. Santa Claus will visit the tree farm on Saturday, Nov. 26 and Sunday, Nov. 27 at 12:30 p.m. each day for about an hour. Families are encouraged to take their own photos of their children with the jolly old elf.

Alberni Christmas Trees will be open Thursdays through Sundays every weekend until Dec. 18. While some wagons and saws will be provided, Gunter-Smith encourages members of the public to bring their own if they have them. Follow Alberni Christmas Trees on Facebook to keep up to date.

Tom’s Trees opens for u-pick trees

For Tom Verbrugge of Tom’s Trees, the airport expansion affected his Christmas tree farm far more than two seasons of extreme heat and drought.

Verbrugge said he only lost about 10 trees more than a normal season’s loss this year; he lost 12,900 trees when his lot was reduced in size to accommodate construction at the northwest end of the runway.

“My trees aren’t as full as they could be,” Verbrugge said. “Two years of drought did take its toll.”

Tom’s Trees, which Verbrugge has operated for 18 years is a u-cut lot. In the past he has cut trees for wholesale lots but he stopped that practice last year.

This year Verbrugge said he will limit his sales to 400 trees. He stopped replanting on his lot when his permit area was reduced from 21 hectares to 11 hectares; he feels he wasn’t well compensated for the losses, so he intends to continue selling off his trees a few hundred at a time until they are gone.

“The 11 hectares I have left will probably take me five years for them to become Christmas trees, and then I will just walk away,” he said. He’s tried selling his business but “up until now it hasn’t been viable to try and sell it because no one wants to buy it.”

Verbrugge’s son Mica owns a u-cut tree lot in Whiskey Creek, under the power lines. He can often be seen helping his father at Tom’s Trees, where he harvests part of Tom’s farm.

While selling to wholesalers would be easier, Tom Verbrugge likes seeing families at his u-cut lot. “With u-pick you get groups of little children sitting around the fire roasting hotdogs. That makes it all worth it.”

Verbrugge will be open this Saturday, Nov. 26 and Sunday, Nov. 27 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and then the first three weekends in December, closing for the season at 5 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 18. Follow the signs past the Alberni Valley Regional Airport on Airport Road, a few kilometres west of Port Alberni. Find them on Facebook (Tom’s Trees Port Alberni) or call 250-720-6214.



susie.quinn@albernivalleynews.com

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AgricultureagritourismAlberni ValleyChristmas treePort Alberni