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O Christmas tree
Writer:Marg Bruineman

Roots of tree industry run deep

A business steeped in tradition has deep roots which continue to spread across Simcoe County. The roots of those fir, spruce and pine have also produced trailblazers in Ontario's Christmas tree industry.

It seems like so long ago, recalls Ardelle Gillespie, when he and his brother, armed with 2,000 or so trees, would wave good-bye to friends and family at their Medonte Township farm and head to Florida for a month or so to sell them. Really, it was a long time ago. The pair first started the venture growing trees on the family property in 1958 when Ardelle was 12 and his brother was 16. "My brother wanted to start this while he was still in school and my dad said go ahead." They laid topsoil on the sandy land and planted trees in the lower area, gradually covering more of the family property.

Once they had enough mature trees they loaded them on 18-foot trailers and headed south for four weeks, returning every year for 30 years. "We were pioneers," chuckles Gillespie, now 71. "We had a good time down there." The pair set up lots in Florida cities along the East coast, hiring seniors to run them.

By the time the Gillespies decided they'd like to put their feet up at home after a hard day's work, several things had happened to their industry. Artificial trees were introduced, chopping into the market previously dominated by natural trees. Big box stores started getting in on the selling game, shoving aside the neighbourhood lot approach and driving down the prices. And a farm south of theirs, called Drysdale's, had morphed the Christmas tree shopping trip into a wonderful winter experience, introducing the you-cut idea to Ontario.

 


About a decade ago, the Gillespies decided to just sell trees at home, a business which the younger Gillespie continues to operate at the original Medonte lot as well as another his family now owns on the 9th Line of Oro.

Using four tractors and two horse teams, the Gillespie you-cut operation sees hundreds of visitors every year – families heading out into the woods to cut their own tree. There's a bonfire and contracted out food vendor on site as well. The routine is hardly tiresome, Gillespie looks forward to every December. "That's the fun part. There's always a story being told and the work is not boring." And, he adds, the going's a little easier when people come to him for a tree.

Area wholesale tree growers also supply the North American market. "The two largest growers in Ontario are here," said Ross Gough of the Ontario Christmas Trees Association. Somerville Nurseries in the Alliston and Everett area is the largest grower in Ontario. Also a long-time family business, Somerville began in 1950. Recognizing that quality planting stock would be key to success the Somervilles started growing and then selling seedlings.

Drysdale's has a large wholesale operation, but is known for its commercial choose-and-cut operation on its main Essa Township property which serves as a major destination for holiday parties, get-togethers as well as those in search of the perfect tree. Drysdale's led the way early in the 1960s by inviting people to come to their farm to chop down a tree, inventing the you-cut operation. By then the Drysdales had well developed the technique and knowledge of tree growing.

"My father grew up in Elmvale and became a teacher in a one-room school," said Doug Drysdale. Just as the provincial tree nursery developed in Midhurst, the senior Drysdale bought two plots of land, in 1926 and 1929, and started to reforest them. Over the years, he worked at the technique of tree growing. During the Second World War a shortage of gasoline limited the number of Christmas trees available in Toronto, "and he got to thinking: Why doesn't somebody grow these trees as a crop?"

In 1945, he bought another piece of property for the purpose of growing Christmas trees and at the age of 12 Doug Drysdale began his career. One day their tree planting was interrupted by a bulldozer on their property – a survey crew was pushing down trees, prospecting for the new Highway 400.

Despite the interruption on that property, the Drysdales perservered with the intention of supplying trees to the United States. In the interim, Doug studied forestry at university and landed a job with the provincial government at Queen's Park. In 1950 he bought his own property in Ballantyne on which he could grow his own trees.

As he developed trees on that property, a colleague found a newspaper clipping describing a new concept launched by a tree farmer in the United States. Instead of shipping trees off for sale, the grower invited people to come to his property to choose their own trees and chop them down themselves. The idea appealed to young Doug, but he had some trouble convincing his dad it was a good idea. So Doug told a neighbouring grower in Ballantyne, who immediately advertised a new cut-yourown- tree operation. "And it worked," said Drysdale, who himself took out an ad the following week, launching his own commercial farm. It was 1958 and pretty exciting times.

They continued on the property next to the new highway for more than a decade, but the 39 acres was limiting. So they moved the operation over to their existing property on Simcoe County Road 56, in between highways 89 and 90. At the age of 12 Douglas, the third generation, began his career in the commercial tree growing operation.

Drysdale's has since developed into a huge commercial operation with a Christmas store, entertainers, special events and party buildings. "We decided, quite a number of years ago, to provide an everlasting memory. So we've done everything we can to make it an experience to remember."

You-cut operations now exist all around the populated Central and Southern Ontario area, supplying the vast populations here. "The big thing in Ontario is that the business is substantially different than the rest of the country," said Gough. The sheer population base of Central Ontario is perfect for you-cut operations. Most of the trees grown in Ontario travel less than an hour to their final destination. And growers have developed operations close to Ontario's large population bases, including Southern Ontario.

Nova Scotia produces the most Christmas trees in Canada, but the vast majority of those are shipped out. Quebec is the second largest producer, followed by Ontario. The three provinces account for 80 per cent of the country's tree sales.

Like all businesses, there are ebbs and flows. The challenge, says Gough, is to anticipate a trend well in advance. "You're looking at 10 years between the time you plant a tree and you start selling the trees." Right now, fir trees are the most desirable but more expensive. It's known as the tree that holds its needles, which are soft, and they have good colouring. The spruce is a fine, more affordable tree. Gillespie doesn't even bother with the Scotch pine anymore – they're fickle, can only be pruned in the beginning of July and it's a "squirrelly tree that gets weird after it gets old."

The use of natural Christmas trees dates back to Germany 400 years ago and Christmas tree production goes back a century or so. But until the end of the Second World War it was common for people to fetch their tree in the local forest. The challenge was in heavily populated cities, where every household didn't necessarily have an axe. That's where the Drysdales saw their market.

By the time the Somerville family started planting and harvesting in the Alliston area in 1950 there was a demand and farmers were starting to meet it. The market was burgeoning by the 1960s when the Gillespies made the annual trek to Florida with their supply. The artificial Christmas tree then took hold of the industry and started to outstrip sales of natural trees in the United States.

The industry won a little bit of a coup a couple of years ago when the David Suzuki Foundation got behind freshly-grown trees as a better option to artificial trees. The plastic artificial trees are difficult to recycle and are largely made in China, meaning their shipping has a much more significant environmental impact than the homegrown, natural variety which is also biodegradable.

The tree business has been good to Gillespie and he keeps at it every year. In July he heads out with a pruning crew of about eight for much of the month. In December he runs one lot, his wife the other and they each have a crew to help out. Later in the winter, when there's a crust on top of the snow, Gillespie will strap on snowshoes and prune off the tops of trees that are getting a tad tall.

North Simcoe is home to several wholesale operations. "At one time this area of Tiny Township was supplying the most Christmas trees in Ontario," said Don Robitaille, a thirdgeneration Penetanguishene tree grower and president of the Ontario Christmas Trees Association. While the growing isn't as vast as it once was, the area is still home to about a half dozen family tree operations. Robitaille has been busy with a crew of three since spring. They planted and pruned trees throughout the summer and they're about to harvest the trees for shipping. Most of his sales are in Ontario with additional sales in Western Canada. This year he's thinking protectionism legislation may mean the U.S. market is out of his reach. SLM



Local support

Omega stand captures a nation's attention

Working with her husband, a plastics manufacturer, along with a wholesale Christmas tree grower near her Penetanguishene home, Sue Eckenswiller went to work developing a product she believes will stand up – the Omega Christmas tree stand. In her pursuit to bring it to market she captured the imagination of Canadians, along with a whole lot of free press.

Eckenswiller pitched the Omega stand to the investors at CBC's Dragons' Den television show. She didn't get a bite and was left to go to market on her own. The following year the television show returned to film her in a warehouse filled with stands on the way to stores. "It really helped move them off the shelves. Because it's Canadian made, people like to get behind it," said Eckenswiller, a Georgian College math teacher who became an entrepreneur almost by accident.

The product developed from a need – she wasn't happy with any of the stands she had used previously and set out to develop something that she thought would work. Her husband, already in the business of plastics manufacturing, made the concept reality. A prototype was developed, it was finally manufactured and the couple set out in search of retailers, succeeding almost immediately with Home Hardware.

The Eckenswillers are now in year 5 with the Omega stand with a growing retail base in Canada and the United States. This year they expect to match the 22,000 they sold last year, breaking into some international markets. As they continue to develop the market for the stand with a goal of selling 100,000 annually, the Eckenswillers have developed a new product, which brought them to the Dragons' Den a second time in search of financing.

Omega Plastics Inc. now also includes a watering system in its inventory, which hasn't yet gone to market. It's a gravityfed water source packaged like a gift, which sits naturally under the tree so that you don't have to reach down under a mound of prickly needles to add water to the stand. They can't reveal if they got a bite this time around and don't know if their segment will air.

With or without the dragons the Eckenswillers will persevere, like they did with the stand. And with the trail already blazed, they can piggy back their new product onto the existing one, making the trip to market a little shorter. Expect to see it in stores in Canada and the U.S. next year.

But the Eckenswillers aren't done. Moving away from the Christmas theme altogether, they are developing a stand for mobile devices, like the BlackBerry, which offer movie viewing. Wouldn't it be great, they say, if you don't have to hold your device to watch movies or television. That might make it a bit easier for them to watch themselves on a certain CBC television show.

SLM