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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Farmers Dream of a Green Christmas

OTTERSHAW, England -- It's probably fair to say that Christmas tree farming is a pretty seasonal business. It's also an industry where the existence of small independents is under threat.

"I'm psychic -- let me guess -- you want to buy a Christmas tree," says Robert Mandry, owner of the tree farm set up by his father Maurice in Ottershaw, some 50 kilometers southwest of London, more than 60 years ago.

It's a well-rehearsed line, and although it's not true on this occasion it typifies Mandry's good-natured bantering with customers as he goes about the business of selling the trees he has nurtured for seven or eight years.

"One month of customer contact a year is pleasant, but it's enough," he confesses in a break from trimming his Nordmann, Douglas or Fraser firs to various customer requirements at the retail end of the 40.5-hectare site.

The rest of the year is spent digging up roots, thinning, protecting from aphids, rabbits, deer or weeds and, in Mandry's case, trying to make life easier for the thousands of songbirds that thrive on his farm.

It's punishing work and it doesn't pay much. Inevitably, the big British homeware retailers like B&Q and Homebase are forcing their way into the market, pushing prices down and making life difficult for a small player like Mandry.

The good news is that the market for real trees is growing at about two or three percent a year, according to the British Christmas Tree Growers' Association, which expects its members to sell about 8 million trees this year to a value of ?180 million ($318 million).

Many growers, tired of selling their trees wholesale to the big chains for perhaps one-quarter of the retail price, have taken to selling their produce from farm shops for a much healthier margin.

Mandry's business is too small even to contemplate wholesale -- he has an annual turnover of just ?100,000, of which 70 or 80 percent is generated in the three weeks before Christmas.

"I can't say it's profitable," he says. "We've built it up by trying to keep prices down to supermarket levels. We'll maybe just about break even this year, unless there's some kind of miracle over the weekend."

This is retail economics at its most unforgiving. Mandry and his small team hope to shift up to 1,000 trees on each of the two crucial weekend days before Christmas that will decide whether this is a fair, poor or disastrous year.

Having so short a selling season causes problems in itself. A burst water main closed the main road passing the farm for four days in early December, causing a loss of revenue that will not be compensated for and never recouped.

The fir tree -- Christmas trees are firs or spruces and not pine trees, as is often thought -- has long associations with Christianity. But the use of real trees as the centerpiece of seasonal decorations did not really take off until Victorian times, and came under threat as artificial trees in plastic or even aluminum came to the fore in the 1960s.

Although the market for real trees is growing again, it has also become faddish. Mandry concedes he has had to bow to some trends, such as importing fashionable varieties from Denmark as he does not grow them on his farm.

This, of course, adds significantly to the cost. A beautiful 2-meter home grown spruce might cost ?15 to ?20 ($26 to $35), the more exotic varieties can easily be twice as expensive and are likely to be less long-lasting, having traveled from Denmark since being cut.

Mandry cares about the fate of the trees he has spent most of a decade growing, but there isn't enough room in the business to bring his children in.

"Don't sell Christmas trees, do you?" one woman asks as she walks past the thousands on display. The answer is a dry "possibly," but the real question is: For how much longer?