Tough business

Local Christmas tree producers struggle

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Around a third of Christmas trees sold in Switzerland are produced locallyImage Caption:

Around a third of Christmas trees sold in Switzerland are produced locally (Keystone)

Christmas trees produced in Switzerland are popular according to retailers and specialists, but not enough are reaching the market to keep pace with consumer demand. And there could be even fewer once the new agricultural policy comes into force.

Around one million Christmas trees are sold in Switzerland every year, most of them imported. According to IG Suisse Christbaum, the national producers’ association, consumers would prefer to buy local.
 
But domestic producers are unable to jump into the breach. Most trees take seven to eight years to grow to the right size before they can be harvested and put on sale, and local plantations cannot yet meet the additional demand.
 
More acreage has been given over to Christmas tree production in recent years. Coop, for example, one of Switzerland’s biggest retailers, sells 80,000 trees each year, a third of which are of Swiss origin – a share that is rising.
 
Migros, the country’s biggest retailer, does not keep detailed centralised statistics because it operates as a series of regional cooperatives. But according to spokeswoman Jeannine Villiger, Swiss trees represent 50 per cent of sales and consumers prefer to buy local if they can.
 
Prices play little role in a consumer’s purchases say specialists. “Swiss trees cost slightly more than imported ones, but the price differential is marginal,” says Josef Brägger of  IG Suisse Christbaum. What they appreciate is freshness – and that is where Swiss trees have the edge.

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Subsidy threat

However, Swiss Christmas tree production is facing a major hurdle as it fights for market share. Under the 2014-2017 agricultural policy currently under discussion in parliament, subsidies would be cut.
 
At the moment, producers get SFr1,020 ($1,111) per hectare and per year, plus another SFr640 for slow-growing crops. Total subsidies are worth around SFr1 million, or around SFr1.50 per tree.
 
While the amount may seem minor, losing it would hit local producers badly in the face of competition from abroad. IG Suisse Christbaum has written to the director of the Federal Agriculture Office to complain.
 
“For years, farmers have been told to take initiatives, to innovate and find niche markets,” association committee member Philipp Gut told the NZZ am Sonntag newspaper. “Now people who tried to do something have been left in the lurch.”
 
The official response has been that subsidies are now reserved primarily for food production.
 
Producers are facing another problem too. Landi, a retail company owned by farmers, has been offering cut-price trees from Denmark for less than SFr20, while an identical tree from Switzerland will cost twice as much.
 
The result has been that producers are now boycotting Landi, and selling trees with their own label to make consumers aware of the trees’ origin.
 
However, there is one threat that is making its way into Swiss living rooms at Christmas time. According to various surveys, around 20 per cent of the population have chosen a plastic tree and retailers say that number is likely to increase.

 
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