Good things come in trees

Features Posted 05/12/18
After planting Norway Spruce seed over 70 years ago, the Clough family at Courtlands Farm in Barham have gone on to establish a successful Christmas tree business.

Following the release of government statistics which show that £3 million pounds worth of real Christmas trees were imported into the UK last year, Grown in Britain has launched a new campaign to encourage consumers to buy more home-grown Christmas trees.

The not-for-profit promoter of British grown forest products says that retailers and consumers alike may be assuming that they are buying fresh British trees, when they are in fact purchasing imports and the organisation is now urging all to reduce ‘tree miles’ by checking where their Christmas tree comes from before they buy.

Regular customers to Courtlands Farm in Barham, Kent, however, need not worry about this provenance issue as the trees they are purchasing have been proudly grown on the estate by the Clough family for the last 70 years.

“My father, Ewart Clough, took the farm over after the second world war and decided to plant some Christmas trees,” said Andrew Clough, at E J Clough Christmas Trees. “He had always been interested in forestry, having studied the subject at Wye College and, after discovering that there were too many frost pockets across the farm to plant an orchard, he bought two pounds of Norway Spruce seed and planted it.”

Today the family run farm, managed by Andrew, continues to supply fresh Kent grown Christmas trees to the local community, with Jean, Ewart’s wife and Andrew’s mother, still running the office and taking orders at the age of 9

Fitting with the farm

Alongside the trees, which are planted across three sites in Barham, Denton and Wootton, Andrew runs a herd of about 800 ewes, a sizable arable operation, of predominantly wheat, barley and winter beans. There is 100-acres of wildflower meadows, which is used to graze sheep during the late-autumn, 50-acres of woodland, which is coppiced to produce sweet chestnut fencing, and some of the land is also rented out to a commercial shoot.

“All farmers are told today is that they need to diversify their businesses, but we have been doing that here since the beginning,” said Andrew. “I have always done Christmas trees; even as a small child, I can remember rushing home from school to help customers with their purchases.”

When it comes to a farm diversification project, Christmas trees is not an industry which you can simply flit in and out of, nor is it a quick way to help generate some additional income. After planting, it takes around 10 years to start seeing a return on investment and each year you need to keep on top of replanting to ensure that there is continuous supply for the future.

However, for a farm such as Courtlands where the trees are established and selling well year on year, Andrew finds that it is an ideal accompaniment to his other mixed agricultural operations.

“The Christmas trees fit in very well with the rest of the farm,” said Andrew. “We have a short break after Christmas, start lambing in March, plant more trees in April, focus on the arable operation over summer and then its round to the next Christmas season. It means that there are never too many quiet patches and farm life is very varied, which I enjoy.”

Over the years the number of consumers wanting trees with roots has fallen, and there has also been significant advancements in forestry machinery, meaning that even during the peak festive season the farm does not need to source seasonal labour and instead receives some help from members of the wider Clough family.

“We used to dig all the trees out by hand, but now we don’t it means that we don’t have to take on extra labour because I can cut them quicker than we can get them back to the farm,” said Andrew. “It does get manic during December, but my daughter and her husband, my sister and nephews will all come to help to sell Christmas trees at the weekends. We employ three full time and two part time members of staff all year round and they will work on all areas of the farm from the Christmas trees to the coppicing, sheep and arable.”

Tree care Several acres of trees are felled and sold each year, and to keep up with demand, around eight to nine thousand trees will be planted each April. In a normal year, the biggest threat to the new plantations is rabbit damage or the possibility that a few trees may not make the grade. This year, however, the hot, dry summer proved disastrous for the young saplings.

“I haven’t dared to count how many surviving trees there are, but I should think that we will have lost 80% of the trees we planted because there is no way to irrigate up here,” said Andrew. “It will be 10 years before we see the effects and we are still contemplating whether or not we plant any extra trees in April 2019 to make up for that. It will be an industry wide problem.”

With increasing consumer demand for the non-drop tree varieties, Courtlands Farm now plants around seven different varieties and alongside the traditional, fast-growing, Norway Spruce there are Nordmann Firs, which are known for retaining their dark green needles; Fraser Firs, which are known for their slightly upwards facing yellow-green branches; Serbian Spruces, which have dense branches and a narrower shape; Noble Firs, which have a blue hue and short stiff branches for heavy ornaments; Grand Firs, which has a thicker foliage and a citrus scent; and White Spruce which has an appealing natural shape and bluish-green needles.

“The Nordmann is by far the most popular and last year we planted around 5,000 of those,” said Andrew. “We also put in 3,000 Norway Spruce, because they are well suited for customers who want large outdoor trees. We then planted a further 1,000 which was a mix of the other varieties so that people have some choice. We do find that people will find a variety they like and ask for it each year.”

Throughout the year, managing the trees is rather straightforward. They will be pruned to ensure that they retain the traditional Christmas tree shape and to prevent them from becoming brown or snapping when they are cut down and Andrew and the team will also control the weeds and monitor for pests and disease.

“We do have to look out for aphids because they defoliate the trees during the first growth in the Spring,” said Andrew. “If it is particularly bad we might spray, but it is probably only worth spraying once in every ten years. We also have an unidentified pest which only attacks the Fraser Fir. It is an insect of some form which causes distorted growth, but our agronomist has never worked out what it is.”

There have also been some issues in the past with rural crime, and just last year the gamekeeper found about 20 trees which had made their way partly across the fields towards the village, so Andrew now tries to grow the trees away from the roads and keeps tracks as muddy as possible as a deterrent.

“Christmas trees are quite appealing to thieves and we have had some stolen from the yard before so we do try to make them as inaccessible as possible,” said Andrew. “However, the most challenging part of the business is actually trying to predict demand each year and looking at how many to cut. Potentially, I could be left with too many if I don’t wholesale some of them, or I could run out before Christmas, which would be embarrassing. At the end of each year we do burn a few but they tend to be the poorer quality ones which people have picked through and rejected.”

Christmas tradition While some of the Christmas trees are sold on a wholesale basis to local nurseries and smaller family run businesses, the majority of trees are sold direct to customers, many of whom have been coming to collect their tree from Courtlands Farm for generations.

“On the whole, people are in a good mood when they come out to buy a tree so it is a nice experience for us too,” said Andrew. “We have a lot of repeat business and see people who came as a child now bringing their own children. Coming out to the farm to choose the tree, rather than just going to a shop, is very much part of an experience and is their Christmas tradition.”

Cutting for the retail side of the business starts around the last week in November to ensure that the trees are fresh. However, Andrew also supplies trees to a large number of town centres across East Kent and his first trees went to Deal High Street on 1 November this year.

“Canterbury Cathedral is one of our most prestigious customers,” said Andrew. “Normally they have a 30ft tree outside, but due to the building works going on this year we will just be supplying three indoor trees. They have asked for matching 12ft Nordmanns so we will be carefully selecting those soon.”

As Courtlands Farm Christmas Trees doesn’t have a website or get involved in advertising, all sales are generated by word of mouth and Andrew believes that key customers, such as Canterbury Cathedral, has come from reputation alone.

By staying out of the wholesale market and developing a reliable group of regular customers, Andrew is not overly concerned about tree imports and while artificial trees are becoming more realistic, he doesn’t consider that sector competition either.

“People don’t want a plastic tree, they want to have a real Christmas,” said Andrew. “Some of the artificial trees can look very nice but a real Christmas tree is a vital part of the festive tradition for many families. People also want to buy local at this time of year and half the beauty of coming to the farm is being able to choose the tree together.”

Photos: Martin Apps, Countrywide Photographic

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