Pádraig Sugrue’s office overlooks Tralee, and the sloping fields where his crop of Christmas trees is ready for harvesting.
It’s a dirty November morning, not the picture perfect Christmas setting, but the trees are ready for homes where they will make Christmas perfect for those who love tradition.
Tight rows of Nordmann Fir, Noble Fir and pine. The Nordmann is the full bushy type without a scent, while the Noble has a lovely scent but isn’t as full a tree. They are different heights, different shapes and sizes, available to meet varying customer requirements.
Work on the farm is still done by manual labour; every hole is dug by hand, and each tree pruned and cut.
“The common shovel is the most popular tool on this farm,” laughs Pádraig. “Machinery is noisy, and I love peace and quiet, and there is less to go wrong, as there is nothing to break down.”
His father Jerry was a typical west of Ireland small farmer. With just 12 acres, they kept two cows and wintered 10 calves bought at market. Fattening them from the cow’s milk mixed with some replacer, they’d sell as yearlings in the late summer. The work would be done before Pádraig went to school, and Jerry to work at Liebherr in Killarney. Evenings would be more of the same, cleaning sheds, spreading dung and turning silage, with the pike.
In 1992, Jerry retired, and bought into a popular scheme to grow Christmas trees. Buying the trees for 50p a unit, they were guaranteed a return of £2.50 when the supplier bought them back at full height. But by the time it came to harvest, the company had closed — and their Norway spruce tree was out of fashion.
The Sugrues were left with 5,000 trees that nobody wanted. If you cut them, they would shed their needles, which is why the tree became less popular. Pádraig decided to dig them up, protecting the root ball, and to plant them in any container he could find.
“Five gallon drums cut in half, buckets, you name it, it became a pot,” says Pádraig.
That was December 1997, and Pádraig was working as an office manager in a local hotel. His hunch worked, and the trees took. Each day after work, Pádraig hitched a trailer to the Toyota Carina and delivered them around Tralee. Suppliers stocked the tree on a sale or return basis, but they sold well for a first time venture.He saw there may be a future in the business.
Crucially, the family realised that the best people to sell the trees were themselves, and the following Christmas, a shop unit was taken in town. The idea of selling an experience took hold, Jerry’s attention to customer service went down well, and sales grew. Also, the fact that every farmer needs to find an outlet for his produce took hold in Padraig’s brain. “You have to treat your farm as your business. What you get for your produce is your livelihood,” he says, with determination, “No point waiting for the price to improve, add value, sell directly, and get a premium for it. It’s the only way to make a living at farming.”
The winters were becoming too long and too wet, Pádraig had to find the best use of the land. The cattle were sold, because their small scale dairy farming was becoming an expensive, loss-making hobby.
He was working off-farm, and his father was retired. After nine years working as an office manager, he quit in November 1999, seeking a career change.
The following January, he went into landscaping, work that always interested him.
He also had an interest in growing and, in the back of his mind, he knew there was a business in Christmas trees. In the mid 2000s, he began to plant the Noble fir in the plots where the Norway spruce had been. The backbreaking work was done by hand, the way Pádraig preferred, but now he had a crop to concentrate on.
A farmer friend said that he wasn’t farming, as he hadn’t a herd number, but Pádraig was adamant that he was wrong.
“Christmas tree farming is the same as growing a crop,” he says, “It’s not the same as forestry, this is more like horticulture. It’s no different from potatoes or carrots, the tree has to look right, or no one will buy it.”
Each tree is planted in a four foot square plot. A sod is cut, the ground broken and the hole dug. The upturned sod is laid at the bottom of the hole, and the tree planted. After that, the trees are fed once a month with a foliar feed during the growing season, and sprayed for weeds twice a year. Once the trees reach hip height, about year three, they need to be base pruned. Pádraig goes around each tree with secateurs, cutting off the lower branches, ensuring the tree isn’t growing branches that will eventually be cut away.
“I go into the field and work my way down the rows at my ease, cutting as I go,” he says.
The trees are tidied, to give them a growing shape. The longer branches are cut to keep the conical shape. The idea is to get the tree to grow up rather than out. Once the tree reaches shoulder height, the buds at the tip of the branches are picked, to stop the branches growing out further. Leader control is done at shoulder height too, when a hormone is rolled onto the tip, where the star goes, to keep it a uniform height.
After that, Pádraig does jobs like shaping, controlling holes by tying branches together, and constant pruning. It’s year round work, but the attention is vital. Again, each task is done by hand, even in a field of 7,000 trees. This makes the farming labour intensive, but ensures the quality of the crop.
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