While many at this time of year give some passing thought to the arbourial world in the form of Christmas trees, for Pat Pfiffner, co-owner of Ever Green Acres Tree Farm near Coaldale, trees are a yearlong pre-occupation. Growing trees for ornamental purposes, landscaping design or shelter belts on local farms and acreages is still a huge part of his farming operation, and has been for the past 16 years.
“I wanted to stay with agriculture, and I saw trees as being one way to diversify the farm,” recalls Pfiffner, thinking back to the time when he first got started in the business. “I always felt if I was doing something I really enjoyed, there was a greater opportunity to be successful at it …We are providing trees for the prairies predominantly; even moreso the local market. And if they are grown here from the time they are small then they are climatized to our growing conditions.”
Unlike many annual crops grown in southern Alberta, Pfiffner says those getting into the tree business cannot expect a short-term return on their initial investment.
“It’s a long game,” he states. “The turnaround time on our deciduous, (leafed), trees is about four years. On the evergreens, that turnaround is about eight to 10 years. You do planting every year, and then you have a bit of a rotation going. I started with evergreens, and when I saw that projected sale period coming for the evergreens, about four years prior to them being mature, then I started to growing deciduous trees so I would be able to offer my customers a broad range of trees for their yards at the time I started selling. That was the gameplan behind that succession of planting.”
Pfiffner now grows and sells over two dozen varieties of trees.
“For evergreens I grow Colorado spruce, and that’s still the most popular evergreen tree,” Pfiffner explains. “I have also been growing three types of pine: Ponderosa, Scots and Mountain.
“I really feel the pines are an under-used evergreen, especially on the prairies. They take the wind and the dry climate. In fact the seed stock of Scots pine I am using comes from Siberia in Russia; so they are hardy in the winter.
“I also grow 20 varieties of deciduous trees. Primarily my market there is farms and acreages, and they want more of a shelter belt-type of tree. The elms, Brandon and American, are popular. The Green ash. I have been growing some maples that are really nice for that as well.
“Of course, poplar trees are always popular.”
Besides these more common types of deciduous trees Pfiffner also grows several different types of ornamental trees, ranging from Japanese tree-lilac to Flowering crabapple to Ohio buckeyes, and over a dozen more in between.
“I don’t sell ornamental trees in as large of volume, because an acreage owner may be six or seven decorative trees and 50 shelter belt trees,” says Pfiffner. “But I like to have a variety on hand to give them some options.”
Pfiffner does not price his trees according to variety, but according to expected growth rate and turnaround time.
“What determines the price of the trees is normally what sort of growth rate you can expect from them,” he explains. “For example, a poplar tree I can turnaround and sell in three years, when it’s 15 feet tall and ready to go, is going to be priced a lot lower than an oak tree that’s taken six years to grow to a marketable height.”
Harvest generally takes place in the spring or the fall, says Pfiffner, when the trees are in dormancy and can be safely dug out and transplanted for sale.
“The viability of digging something in season would be greatly reduced if not completely subject to failure,” states Pfiffner.
“The digging window in the spring for deciduous trees is when the frost comes out of the ground until the new buds emerge.
“For evergreen trees the digging window is quite narrow in the spring, but in the fall it is once the new growth has hardened off; so Septemberish.
“For the deciduous in the fall I like to see a good killing frost, something like -4 C or -5 C, before I start digging them up.”
He uses a special tree spades of different sizes in the harvest and a skid-steer. The tree roots are placed in a ringed basket lined with burlap. They can then be transported and transplanted by the farm or acreage owners.
Pfiffner takes orders for trees throughout the winter and summer months. He says part of his role is to advise his customers about what trees might be right for them to meet their needs— to serve as a matchmaker of sorts.
“You are making a longterm plan when you are buying a tree,” explains Pfiffner, “and people tend to very carefully consider what they are going to be planting.
“I work together with my customers to have a forward-thinking plan for their farmyards and acreages. I tell them, for example, we can grow a row of poplar, but they are shorter lived so let’s be forward-thinking and either plan to plant some longer lived trees at the same time as an interior row or just be thinking in five to 10 years to be planting some more short lived varieties to get more longevity out of the shelter belt. So just thinking about getting some succession planting growing.
“It’s also important to select a diversity of trees in the yard as well,” he adds. “If you are creating a monoculture then they are much more susceptible to getting insect and disease problems, which can sometimes be clearing out 80 per cent of your yard if it’s bad enough.”
But these kinds of practical considerations are not always at the heart of his customers concerns, says Pfiffner; they just as often want to plant trees they are going to love to see in their yards for years to come and which suit their sense of beauty and style.
“You try to get a feel of what they are looking for and what attributes they like in their trees, and for what purpose they are planting them so you can try to make some good recommendations,” says Pfiffner.
“It’s really a team effort. When the customers come, I try to get a feel for what they are looking for, and I can then give them lots of good information.”
For more information on Ever Green Acres Tree Farm visit their website at www.eg-trees.com.