Despite society’s ever-growing fascination with the convenience factor, one tradition continues to be revered at this time of year: chopping down your own Christmas tree.
Gerard Demaiter of Benjamin Tree Farm, just West of St. Jacobs, says the artificial tree craze hasn’t been enough to put a damper on their business. And their customer base continues to grow.
“This year we’ve heard from a lot of people it’s their first time out. We do have a lot of repeat customers that have been coming for years and years, but it’s sort of a generational thing. They come with the kids, the kids get older, and then they stop coming. And then we’re into the next generation where kids that were coming with their parents are bringing their own kids back,” Demaiter explains.
He says young families are their main market, something there’s no shortage of with new subdivisions being built in Elmira, St. Jacobs, and the west side of Waterloo. And they’re making a family outing out of it, taking their time to walk the field in search of the perfect tree, enjoying some fresh air, and browsing the seasonal goods in their new gift shop, St. Nick’s Picks.
“The majority of our customer base is from the city, but look at the population density, there’s more people in the city. We do get a lot of locals from Heidelberg, St. Clements, Elmira, St. Jacobs, all through Woolwich, all through the Township of Wellesley,” Demaiter said.
They sell precut balsam and Fraser fir trees for people who are looking for a quick trip to get a tree. And they offer white spruce and balsam fir for the cut your own, which is the most popular option.
“About 75 per cent cut it down themselves. They’re coming for the experience to come out to the farm, walk the fields, pick any tree they like, cut it down and the whole family experience,” Demaiter said.
Customers who purchase precut trees tend to go toward the balsam, with the Fraser a close second. The white spruce is the top choice for cut your own tree customers. It’s dense and grows well in the soil here, whereas the soil isn’t ideal for balsam and Fraser, so they don’t typically grow as nice.
“We are going to be expanding our varieties into Norwegian spruce and some pines. We used to grow them, but we phased them out. But we think we’re going to reintroduce them on a smaller scale,” Demaiter said.
The business operated across the road from its current location for about 25 years. This marks the third year they’ve been in their new digs, and he says they saw a growth in customers after the move.
“We’ve seen it grow. It’s holding its own against the artificial tree. We’ve expanded our facilities. We’re more of a presence. When you drove down the road you didn’t really see the tree farm before. Now you can see the whole farm, the parking lot, the facilities,” Demaiter said.
They bought the adjacent farm from an Old Order Mennonite who moved north where land is cheaper and the roads aren’t so busy for horse-drawn buggies.
Some 4,000 trees are planted on their farm each year, and because not all trees turn out, that keeps them covered. On an average year he estimates they sell 5,000 trees.
“We typically sell our precuts pretty well, but we always have more trees in the field because on average they take eight years to grow. But some of the faster ones that are younger will be ready for sale around six or seven years. But then some of our slower ones take maybe even nine years. If we run short in the field, customers just go into one field younger and then they find the biggest ones in there,” Demaiter said.
He says weather conditions have been great, with no rainy days to keep customers away. But, having some of that white stuff on the ground would definitely help.
“That puts people in the mood. What we’ve sort of noticed is this year started a little slower than last year, but we’re catching up now. Last year we had a bit of snow pretty early on, it really put people in the mood,” Demaiter said.
The tree farm also keeps busy in December especially with class trips from local schools, averaging 120 kids through the farm a day.
And while some people see the advantage of buying an artificial tree once and never having to buy a tree again, Demaiter explains there’s good reason to support local tree farms.
“The benefit of a real tree is they convert carbon dioxide into oxygen. That’s the main advantage of having trees and why wood lots are protected now. As well as all the wildlife it supports. There are tons of bird nests in the trees. They love protection and the density of the trees,” Demaiter said.
An artificial tree will cost more than a real tree up front (unless you get a good deal after Christmas) but less in the long run. But Demaiter notes they’re not aiming to sell the best bargain, but the best experience. And for everyone who’s bought into the buy local movement, this is a great way to do just that.
“We’re selling the experience of coming out with your family, spending three, four hours at the farm, getting your tree, having the cider, mingling in the gift shop, showing the kids the equipment, showing them nature, bringing them to the outdoors. We’re selling the experience and the tree is just the byproduct of the experience.”