Farming Insight: The farm where every day is Christmas

Christmas tree grower IAN RIX on the joys of his seasonally-inspired business, Redhouse Christmas Barn, at Rookery Farm near Snape

WE run a mixed farming enterprise including arable, ducks, Christmas trees and retail shop, as well as holiday homes.

After attending Chadacre Agricultural College, near Bury St Edmunds, in the late 70s, I took a trip to Australia and was inspired by an ex-solicitor who walked away from a well paid career in Brisbane to set up a watermelon farm in the depths of New South Wales.

He was always looking to use technology to improve his farm and had started to use ‘trickle’ irrigation as early as 1980, at least 10 years before it arrived in the UK. This was the catalyst for me to start thinking about the future, as it told me that anything was possible.

I returned to the UK and started farming, purchasing my first 30 acres of land in Benhall in 1987 and there my journey began. I planted my first crop of wheat in the autumn of 1987 and saw that it was going to take more than 30 acres of wheat to enable me to generate an income.

I then purchased some more land in 1994 from the proceeds of my full time farm work, and development of a property purchased in Benhall, in addition to my 30 acres. That was when I first saw the opportunity to grow Christmas Trees, having sold 100 trees for a friend outside Sainsbury’s in Ipswich in December 1993, as a way of making the most of a small pocket of land on a slope. I started with just 2.5 acres of trees, which accommodating 2500 trees an acre was able to deliver us our first 6000 trees within a nine year window. Christmas tree production blossomed from visits to key growers via the Christmas Tree Association to learn key techniques and the route to success.

Market research showed that there was a shortage of trees grown in the UK and the flat lands of Suffolk were ideal for growing from both a productivity and an environmental perspective. Customer research showed that there was a need for different varieties of tree to provide customer choice. In the early days it was just Nordman, however today we grow five different varieties. In addition to the ever popular Nordman, we now grow Noble, Douglas, Fraser and Norway Spruce. They have a growth cycle ranging from six years for the Norway Spruce to nine years for the Nordman and Noble. The Norway Spruce in particular has seen a resurgence in the past two years, due to its outstanding value during these hard economic times.

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Redhouse Christmas Barn shop opened in November 2006 and has grown every year since. Winning Christmas Tree Grower of the year in 2010, enabled the business to grow 45% that year, with a feature on Blue Peter and a trip to see the Prime Minister as official supplier of the Christmas Tree to Number 10 in December 2010, helping to further publicise the growing business.

The Christmas Tree programme has had a massively positive impact on the local environment via surrounding the duck sheds to integrate them within the landscape, in the flat, open fields, as well as providing enough oxygen from every acre for 11 people. They have also been great for wildlife, providing a sanctuary for birds to nest within and feed off the aphids. The trees are all sold locally avoiding unnecessary miles travelled and they are mulched afterwards to put the goodness back into the soil.

We also engage with the local community in a number of ways. We give Christmas trees to local schools and churches. We also run evenings for parents’ associations and charities to raise money through offering them use of the shop and then handing back 10% of the value of all sales that evening to the organising body.

It’s a year-round operation, though, starting in January. After Christmas we do all the stock-taking and take down all the decorations from the Christmas trees in the barn, then remove the trees themselves. By February, we have begun the process of ordering decorations again.

At the end of February, weather conditions permitting, we begin planting new trees. We try and get them in in the dry time, but we want to have them in the ground early enough so they have enough rain. After that, we start base-pruning the older trees of four years or more to make them easier to harvest. We fork prune them, which involves going round the whole tree to make them narrower. Then we feed them with some fertiliser to help them grow. At the end of May/June we bud rub, or take out the centre bit to give them a nice shape. In June/July we stop the leaders growing too long and put bird stands on top of the trees to prevent the birds breaking them. For a period of about two weeks, the new leaders are so weak they are liable to snap if a bird lands on them. We don’t put the stands on every tree, because birds tend to sit on the taller ones. In August, we mark out the trees we intend to sell that season, and at the end of November we start harvesting them.

Meanwhile, inside the shop is already a hive of activity. From September, preparations have begun in earnest, ready for opening in October. We open for the school half term as this has proved a popular time with visitors heading to Aldeburgh for an autumn break. We get a lot of holidaymakers and they buy a few decorations. We keep gaining customers for our Christmas trees from our decorations sales as they return later for their main purchase. In the first year, we opened at the end of November, only to discover that was really too late to set the chain in motion and increase our customer base.

Normally people buy their trees in December, but some want theirs early. For example, one customer was travelling to see relatives in Australia over Christmas and as a result, was celebrating the festive season with relatives here before heading out and needed a tree. We also supply shops with trees and they like theirs early. I know for some people it seems far too early, but we do get a lot of people who come, and if we started on December 1, we wouldn’t have enough time to introduce our business to new customers.