4 Dec 2023

Pining for the real thing - Christmas tree farms still thriving

From First Up, 5:47 am on 4 December 2023
Misa Christmas Tree Farm in Balmoral

Misa Christmas Tree Farm in Balmoral. Photo: Leonard Powell / RNZ

As December rolls around for another year, the Christmas music has well and truly begun blasting at the mall as people count down the days until the festive break.

It is also the season for many people to pop up a Christmas tree, fill it with decorations and start putting presents underneath. While some use artificial Christmas trees, the market for real trees is still thriving. 

Mike Fuyala at Misa Christmas Tree Farm.

Mike Fuyala at Misa Christmas Tree Farm. Photo: Leonard Powell / RNZ

First Up visited a couple of Auckland Christmas tree farms to learn more about the industry. 

Misa Christmas Tree Farm in Balmoral is a family business, with manager Mike Fuyala busy chopping the bottom off a line of trees. The business has been in the family since 1940, when the property had macrocarpa trees on it.  

"My uncle, mum and aunties were selling the macrocarpa branches to some of the American soldiers as Christmas trees. They were stationed here and kind of scrounging around for Christmas trees, having brought their wives over.

"That's kind of how it started, then our grandfather and great uncle kind of turned it into a business enterprise."

Directly off the main road and surrounded by increasingly dense housing, an entire hectare in suburban central Auckland lined with Christmas trees was a sight out of the ordinary.  

Fuyala said there had been approaches over the years from developers to take over the site, but it had never been considered. 

"If you sell it, you can't get it back. Unless you're really, really hard up for cash, it doesn't really make that much sense to us."

Fuyala estimated there were around 2500 trees growing for sale at their Balmoral site, but most of their trees came from a beef farm out in South Head. 

The cheapest tree at Misa was $45, while the giant, eight-year-old, six-metre trees visible from Balmoral Road cost $1500.

Misa Christmas Tree Farm in Balmoral

Misa Christmas Tree Farm in Balmoral. Photo: Leonard Powell / RNZ

Those massive trees are usually found in malls or mansions with tall ceilings. Fuyala said while it was nice making money selling the big trees, his most valued customer is the entry-level buyer.

"I always say our most important price is our cheapest tree, because everything beyond that is nice to have for somebody. 

"If they want a really big tree, it's a slightly less important price point from my perspective, because if you're a family, you haven't got much money, your kids want a tree, I think there should always be a price point for that person."

Father Christmas vs Mother Nature

Half an hour south down SH1 is the Mount Gabriel Christmas Tree farm in Drury.  

Ash Commerer runs the business between their 22-acre farm there, and a six-acre farm in Mangere Bridge. 

"If you tell someone you grow Christmas trees, the first response is like, "Hah! Really?! Do you make a living out [of it]?"

He was used to people finding his profession an amusing one, but he does indeed make a living, usually selling around 3000 trees each year between the two farms. 

"It's not huge, but it's okay."

Mt Gabriel's prices ranged from $20 to $55. 

While they still offer pre-cut trees, which sit in small buckets of water, Commerer said the business had become popular for family day trips, where people now cut the trees themselves with a handsaw. 

Ash Commerer at Mt Gabriel Christmas tree farm, with his dog Axel.

Ash Commerer at Mt Gabriel Christmas tree farm, with his dog Axel. Photo: Leonard Powell / RNZ

"Our customer base is quite different to what it was. Ten, 15, 20 years ago, our customers would get pre-cut trees, now they're coming because they can get the kids out there and chop a tree down, as a family activity." 

The wild weather this past year has been tricky for growth, with too much rain and a lack of sunshine. But Commerer said that is part and parcel with working outdoors. 

"At the end of the day, you've just got to take what Mother Nature gives you. [The trees] don't always do what you want them to do. 

"It's interesting to fight nature the whole way through the year, roll on November it's like, the trees are what they are, and there's nothing you can do about it. You just have to do your best."

And as someone who had been working in the industry since the 1980s, Commerer had a few tips for Christmas tree care.

"The best advice is, no matter how long the tree's been out of water, give it a fresh cut on the stump. Cut off about a centimetre and then put it straight in water. 

"The second thing is make sure that it never runs out of water. There's no reason why you shouldn't get five to six weeks out of a tree."