Drive west from Halifax on Highway 103 and you will pass a sign welcoming you to Lunenburg County, "the Balsam Fir Christmas Tree Capital of the World." Here lies the heartland for an industry that is a peculiar combination of agriculture and forestry, export product and cultural commodity. It's also fertile ground for change in a dreaded Christmas ritual.
As much as a balsam fir can enliven a room, sweeping up its dead needles is a painstaking task. But at a time when the tree industry is hurting, regional producers view the chore as a business opportunity. They are supporting an R&D project that will re-invent the product by preventing needles from littering the floor.
Trees cut in the balmy days of autumn sometimes look worse for wear by Dec. 25, resulting in dissatisfied customers. Some might view this as the consequence of whacking down a living plant and propping its rootless stem in a desiccating, overheated living room for a few weeks. But not Raj Lada, who heads up the Christmas Tree Research Centre at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College. The plant physiologist is delving into the secrets of needle retention, and believes his findings will be the industry's salvation.
He rejects the idea that a felled tree is a dead tree. "It is something like a chicken without a head," he says. It is merely "functionally handicapped." And needle loss, far from being inevitable, is what he calls "post-harvest syndrome."
In other words. after the tree has been cut down, there are several variables to examine, including signal molecules that trigger needle drop and the genetics that possibly aid their retention.
In the middle of the last century, few could have anticipated this scientific challenge. Back then, farmers in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick simply felled young conifers and loaded them onto boxcars. Balsam fir was the preferred species, partly because it sprouted like a weed on cut-over forest sites and neglected pastures. It was mediocre for lumber, but people liked its sweet fragrance - a Christmas-y attribute that distinguished it from the variety known as "cat spruce," which is reputed to smell like urine.
Aesthetic standards intensified. With the expansion of Christmas-tree farming south of the border, and the proliferation of perfectly formed artificial trees, wild fir no longer matched the aesthetic ideal. It became necessary for growers to adopt cultivation practices such as shearing - annual pruning to produce the denser foliage and uniform, pyramidal taper finicky consumers demand.
To give trees a flush of the preferred blue-green hue, the use of chemical fertilizer also became common. Herbicides were introduced to control competing vegetation, and pesticides became available to prevent damage by insects such as the balsam woolly adelgid and the balsam gall midge.
The business has become more expensive, and it has also become so labour-intensive that in recent years a number of migrant workers from Mexico have been brought to Lunenburg County to tend balsam fir plantations.
As costs continue to increase, the United States has kept prices flat, further toughening competition. For growers in the Atlantic provinces, who account for between 40 and 45 per cent of Canada's exports, Dr. Lada's research is one of the few signs of hope.
With about $5-million in government funding, plus contributions from industry associations and a producers' research co-operative, the SMART balsam project is beginning to unravel the mysteries of Christmas tree longevity.
The tip of the matter is understanding the signal molecules. Ethylene, which also plays a role in ripening fruit, is one factor. Compounds have been identified that will either block the synthesis of ethylene or block the receptors. Ultimately this means chemical products, applied either through the water in that little tree-stand reservoir, or as a gas that would be administered pre-harvest in the field and through a post-harvest fumigation treatment.
The project is also trying to pinpoint the genetic markers for trees that have superior needle retention. According to growers' lore, balsam fir need a couple of hard frosts to "set" their needles before harvest; it turns out this is true for some trees, but others will actually keep their needles longer if they are cut prior to cold acclimation.
This is not genetic engineering, the controversial practice that has revolutionized food-crop production, but it has the same potential to create a two-tier industry, driving a wedge between those who buy in and those who opt out. The research co-operative will have the opportunity to commercialize any technology resulting from the project, and the SMART balsam itself will be a branded product available only to members. Once the offering of $500 shares closes, non-members will have missed their chance. As for shareholders who adopt the brand, they'll have to switch to a more intensive production system and prevent the natural genetic promiscuity that was once the industry norm.
With the recession resulting in a glut of cheap trees on the U.S. market, and the dollar close to parity, this has been a difficult year. While some growers may be discouraged, Dr. Lada is bullish on the proprietary balsam - a Christmas tree that will remain beautiful long after being detached from its roots.
"I don't know where it's going to stop. Our goal is to have four months," he says. "That will deter people from using the artificial trees. I want to see artificial trees eliminated from the planet."