A short, scraggly Douglas Fir leaning off to one side might not look like anything of value to most people, but to Eric Rasmussen, it has the potential to become a perfect Christmas tree with a little bit of help.
Born and raised in Edgewater, Rasmussen has been farming native stand Christmas trees in the Columbia Valley his entire life. Native stand trees, unlike those farmed on a plantation, are naturally occurring and the Columbia Valley is full of them.
“The valley bottom is excellent on this real poor, hilly, gravelly ground for native stand Christmas trees,” said Rasmussen, surveying a piece of property full of Douglas firs to the north of Radium Hot Springs. “The soil is poor here, it’s very, very low grade timber, and so that’s why the Christmas tree thing has taken off so well here.”
In its heyday, the valley’s Christmas tree industry saw nearly half a million trees cut a year. That was back in the ‘50s when two large American buying companies – the Kirk Company and JA Hofert – owned large tracts of land in the area and were operating in full swing. The majority of their trees went to California, some went to the Eastern seaboard and others even as far as Mexico. Smaller operators were also shipping trees to Calgary, Edmonton and the prairies.
“They did a lot of development work on the Christmas trees,” said Rasmussen. “Both companies had big crews that worked year round on improving the Christmas tree quality; locals were working in the whole system of farming Christmas trees.”
Production dropped in the late ‘90s when both companies downsized and moved out of the area. Nowadays, Rasmussen estimates that about 100,000 trees are harvested annually by property owners wholesaling their own trees, with roughly one hundred individual operators selling anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000 native stand trees each.
“There are lots of small pieces of private land that are being used and farmed,” Rasmussen said.
The government also leases out pieces of property through Christmas Tree Permits, he said, but the permits are increasingly harder to come by.
“One of the reasons for the downfall is that the Ministry of Forests has not wanted to be involved in Christmas trees, and that has been a real downfall in the industry,” Rasmussen said. “Earlier years with different management, they really pushed the Christmas tree thing and it was a good thing for many people.”
Another reason for the drop in production, according to Rasmussen, is that the art of native stand farming is no longer properly practiced.
“There’s lots of people who will go and cut what we call a wild tree, get whatever they can get here, and that’s where it’s at,” he said. “My point is you have all these millions of stems that are there and are not going to amount to anything unless they’re worked on.”
The work is called culturing, which is the process of shaping, shearing and thinning a wild tree over time to help develop it into a perfectly symmetrical tree. Rasmussen said that while most native stand trees vary in age, from 30 to 100 years, a wild tree that has been worked on can develop into a perfect Christmas tree within five years.
“It’s just the most amazing thing,” he said, pointing to a branch angling upwards that he’s identified as a future Christmas tree. “It will straighten itself out.”
Sacrificing other branches on a stem will allow for one branch to become the dominant leader and eventually develop into a tree. With cultural work, one stem can generate multiple trees over time and evidence of this method can be seen on what’s called “stump trees” from Radium to Edgewater.
“If you walk around, you can see on different stems where a branch has been cut off, it was a Christmas tree,” Rasmussen said. “I’ve got up to 11 growing off the same stem.”
Any brush created during the cultural work is then left at the base of the stem where it decomposes to produces nitrogen and carbon, which act as natural fertilizer.
Height ranges from two to 20 feet with the five to seven footers accounting for 75 per cent of orders. A single tree at today’s prices is worth roughly $10 to $15 dollars; the key to being profitable is always having a tree on the go.
“There’s a tremendous market,” he said. “People who are in it cannot begin to supply the market and at the moment there are very few people who are putting the effort in to getting a quality tree so they aren’t pursuing it enough.”
For the valley to have a thriving native stand Christmas tree industry again, Rasmussen said what’s needed are people who have the initiative to do the physical work and the necessary planning.
“First of all you would join the Kootenay Christmas Tree Association and pick up what knowledge you can there and then we have field days where we do a full day of teaching,” he said, “and what most people do is they find somebody who is doing well in the industry and they go and work with them for a while.”
When you’re in it, he said, you understand whether you’re going to get a thousand or 3,000 off a parcel of land.
“It’s always a visual thing but you go into an area and you work every stem and you plan out what’s going to happen,” Rasmussen said. “Every stem here should make a Christmas tree, the smaller ones, every one will make it.”