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Christmas tree farm is planning ahead after losing 30,000 trees during droughts

Farm manager Rob Hartley and foreman Edward Filby at Norfolk Christmas Trees in Great Melton <i>(Image: Denise Bradley)</i>
Farm manager Rob Hartley and foreman Edward Filby at Norfolk Christmas Trees in Great Melton (Image: Denise Bradley)

Christmas tree growers are enjoying their traditional festive sales boom - but one firm is also planning for future supply challenges after losing 30,000 trees during recent droughts.

Norfolk Christmas Trees, part of Great Melton Farms, west of Norwich, will harvest around 8,000 trees this year, with around 5,500 being sold to retail customers visiting the farm.

But even at the height of its peak season, the company is working to preserve long-term supplies after some disastrous weather.

Eastern Daily Press: Norfolk Christmas trees growing at Great Melton Farms
Eastern Daily Press: Norfolk Christmas trees growing at Great Melton Farms

Norfolk Christmas trees growing at Great Melton Farms (Image: Edward Filby)

In the dry summers between 2020 and 2022, the business lost around 30,000 young trees whose roots were not deep enough to find water in the soil.

Due to the length of time they would have taken to grow to maturity, that shortfall will hit about three years from now.

So the firm is already cutting back on wholesale deliveries to garden centres this year, after also planting some faster-growing varieties and investing £20,000 to extend irrigation mains, using water abstracted under licence from the River Yare, to safeguard future supplies.

"We lost a lot of trees during those drought years," said farm manager Rob Hartley. "That has left a big hole in our supply in three years' time if we don't manipulate our tree numbers now.

"Between winding back wholesale deliveries and irrigating we are trying to guarantee our own tree supply coming into the shop, and the quality of the trees.

"We will still do some wholesale, but the idea is we want to preserve our 5,500 trees for retail, because we want to expand this facility here and sell a lot more trees - we have aspirations to sell 7,500 or even 10,000 per year.

"I had a long conversation with my boss when I first came here six months ago, about whether we actually wanted to carry on [with Christmas trees], because losing 30,000 trees leaves a big trough a few years down the line, so we had to make the decision now about whether to invest in irrigation and more trees to get us where we need to be.

"Quite rightly we decided to do it. If you've got a business that is pulling in this much income in November and December on an arable estate, you would be wrong not to carry on with that diversification."

Mr Hartley does not believe there will not be an overall shortage of trees in future years, as suppliers in other parts of the country which are better suited to forestry, will not have suffered the same losses.

Eastern Daily Press: A large Christmas tree for Attleborough town centre was grown at Great Melton Farms
Eastern Daily Press: A large Christmas tree for Attleborough town centre was grown at Great Melton Farms

A large Christmas tree for Attleborough town centre was grown at Great Melton Farms (Image: Edward Filby)

Great Melton Farms, which also grows arable crops across 1,800 hectares of land, plants 12-15,000 trees per year on about 45ha of plantations - usually drier, sandy soils which are not ideal for food crops.

More than 90pc are Nordmann firs, which grow very slowly for the first three years, before adding about a foot per year.

The trees require a lot of investment and careful management - starting with plant costs of about 90p each, deer-fencing and irrigation.

"Then you have got to tend them for six or seven years without any income," said Mr Hartley.

"We try to plant into clover as it is a natural weed suppressant, but if you plant into bare ground you have got to mow and strim in-between them to keep the weeds down.

"When they get to a certain size you base-prune them to get the bit you put in your tree stand at home, then you've got to bud-rub them to shape them, you've got to crimp the leaders every year to manipulate how they grow, then you've got to top-stop them, which is where you put a growth regulator on the leader to stop it running away.

"If left in the right conditions they will just grow and grow and you end up with big gaps between the branches, which no-one wants - everyone wants a nice bushy tree.

"Then we put on a blended fertiliser to guarantee the needle colour is going to be a nice dark green, and all sorts of trace elements like manganese, magnesium, zinc, copper and boron."

Eastern Daily Press: Farm foreman Edward Filby at Norfolk Christmas Trees in Great Melton
Eastern Daily Press: Farm foreman Edward Filby at Norfolk Christmas Trees in Great Melton

Farm foreman Edward Filby at Norfolk Christmas Trees in Great Melton (Image: Denise Bradley)

Farm foreman Edward Filby oversees the Christmas tree operation in a seasonal diversion from his usual arable responsibilities of tractor driving, cultivations and seed drilling on the farm.

"There are not many tractor drivers that get to deal with the retail side," he said. "Farming can be quite a stressful and lonely job, so this adds something extra.

"I find it nice to come here and be with the public at a happy time of year. It is completely different to a normal farm job, where we would have been in the workshop at this time of year."

Eastern Daily Press: Norfolk Christmas Trees in Great Melton
Eastern Daily Press: Norfolk Christmas Trees in Great Melton

Norfolk Christmas Trees in Great Melton (Image: Denise Bradley)