A consumer shift towards real Christmas trees, and the Killakee Christmas Tree Farm’s ideal location in the foothills of the Dublin mountains, have been very good for business.
So says Karen Morton, who together with her husband, Justin, run the Christmas tree farm. The couple also involves their children, and both sets of their parents, especially during the season.
“Our proximity to Dublin gives us a great advantage relative to others who are located in more remote locations,” she tells That’s Farming.
“Also, over the last 20 years, we have seen increased urban sprawl into the countryside which has seen the demand for our Christmas trees shoot through the roof. So, for us every year, the constraint is not having enough supply to meet demand.”
Karen left the corporate world about 7 years ago to have more time to focus on and grow their Christmas tree operation.
Although it is her main source of income, she is also involved in other businesses. Justin farms on a part-time basis.
Killakee Christmas Tree Farm
The first trees were planted in 1994, whilst harvesting and the sale of trees started in 1999. Other than Christmas trees, the Mortons also have a forestry operation on the farm.
According to Karen, the idea of people coming to a Christmas tree farm to pick their own tree was a relatively new concept in Ireland when they started out.
“Although the concept was big in America and in European countries like Germany, a bit of educating was needed in our market. And then all of a sudden, we got good publicity one year and demand shot up.”
This led to a shortage of trees for a number of years.
“Unfortunately, with Christmas trees, they do take a long time to grow. So, getting enough supply is not a quick fix; it takes a few years.”
On average, it takes between 8-10 years for trees to reach 6-8 feet, the height that customers generally prefer.
Sell hundreds of trees
Killakee harvest and sell hundreds of trees each year. Karen says in the spring they replant everywhere that they have cut as well as extra where they can. “Generally, we plant more than we cut.”
She continues by saying that Killakee Christmas Tree Farm is all about selling an experience.
“For many, visiting the farm and picking a tree is an annual family tradition.”
“Going to a retailer and picking a box with an (artificial) tree is a very different experience than going on a family outing that is maybe multi-generational.”
“Visiting the farm and choosing a tree encompasses the whole experience that goes with Christmas.”
The farm also sells pre-cut trees for those that do not want to partake in the whole experience or do not have the time to do it. Handmade wreaths for doors and garlands are also available on the farm.
Karen also does free educational programmes for primary schools as a way to give back to the local community.
This involves lessons on life on a farm, how the farm operates, the growing of the trees, etc.
The preparation for the season starts in the autumn (September) and things get busier as they get closer to Christmas.
“Tree up in time for The Late Late Toy Show”
The first day of season trading for Killakee is normally on the day of The Late Late Toy Show, which is usually aired on the last Friday in November. The season lasts only a few weeks and typically ends the weekend before Christmas.
“These days it is a real thing to try and have your tree up in time for The Late Late Toy Show.”
The Nordmann fir is the main fir species grown as a Christmas tree. It represents roughly 95% of the trees sold in Europe.
Karen says this is because they do not shed and are full and bushy in form – the “perfect Christmas tree shape.”
“In Ireland, the Noble fir is also popular. Based on our own figures we sell about 80-85% Nordmann firs and 15-20% Noble firs. Both these species grow well in the Irish climate.”
The farm has also started experimenting with other species, including the Korean fir, although these trees have not come to maturity yet.
Figures that Karen put together a few years back show that Ireland sells about 550 000 Christmas trees per year. However, she thinks the figure has increased since then.
Greater concern for environment and sustainability lifts demand
“Our experience shows that there has been a great demand for real Christmas trees. Although we get a lot of regulars coming to our farm each year, we also see a lot of new people visiting us for their first outing in buying a real tree.”
She adds that the increased demand for the real deal can also be because people are more conscious about the environment and sustainability.
“Not only are artificial trees made of plastic, but they are shipped from thousands of kilometres away.”
“They are made from a non-renewable resource that cannot be recycled and will remain in a landfill – a long-term burden to the environment.”
However, real Christmas trees are fully recyclable and biodegradable.
Karen says the criticism that sometimes comes their way regarding the cutting of Christmas trees does not hold water.
“The only reason for growing Christmas trees in the first place is to eventually cut them down.”
“Also, Christmas trees help to keep the air clean. For every acre of Christmas trees that we grow, enough oxygen for 18 people a day is produced.”
Online booking system for farm visits
The farm manages its visits through an online booking system that was implemented due to COVID.
“Our first priority is the safety of our staff and customers, which is why we abide by all the required COVID rules.
“Furthermore, our booking system manages the number of people visiting the farm at any particular time.”
Karen says the booking system has been transformational for their business and that they will keep on using it in the future.
“For us, it manages the flow of traffic to the farm. The customers like it as it does away with the long queuing that they had to endure before.”
But it means that they cannot book as many people over weekends as they would like to.
However, COVID has led to more people working on a hybrid basis giving them more flexibility to book visits during the week.
€50 per tree
Killakee’s Christmas trees sell for €50unit up to 8ft tall. Karen says relatively speaking, their trees are “reasonably priced”.
Though, the price will most probably increase next year, the first time in more than 10 years.
Preparing Christmas trees for the market involves pruning it in the summer to develop the right shape.
This includes controlling the leader (the very top of the tree). The height of the leader defines the layers between branches. If it becomes too tall it will lead to too many gaps between the layers of branches.
The biggest threat to the Killagee enterprise is the weather. Karen says extreme weather conditions mean that they have to close the business and reschedule bookings.
“We are a very exposed site, and we are not going to do anything that puts the health and safety of our staff and customers at risk.”
“Moreover, since we are only open for business for a few weeks, losing a day to bad weather can have a significant impact on the operations.”
Responding to what they like the most about the Christmas tree business, Karen says: “We love the joy we can bring to people’s lives and being part of their annual tradition.”
“It is pleasing to see our regular customers coming back each year and them sharing how they appreciate the opportunity to visit the farm. We are fortunate to have an idyllic location that we can share with people.”
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