The Swiss will have snapped up an estimated one million Christmas trees by the end of the festive season.This content was published on December 15, 2005 - 11:29
Aiming for a slice of the annual bonanza, Swiss farmers are counting on homegrown trees to help them break into the lucrative trade long dominated by foreign imports.
During a visit to a Christmas tree farm, swissinfo discovers that growing and tending the trees is a demanding year-round job.
Located in a picture-perfect landscape outside the capital, Bern, Hans-Peter Luder's farmhouse evokes times past and oozes cosiness.
But modernity reigns when it comes to the task of raising Christmas trees. As price guarantees fall by the wayside and subsidies disappear, this most traditional of enterprises has been forced to innovate and adapt.
Luder and his family started growing Christmas trees around 20 years ago, at first making themselves something of a laughing stock in the neighbourhood of Bütikofen.
"People still think that Christmas trees should cost practically nothing," he told swissinfo.
"They'll shell out SFr50 [$38] for flowers without a second thought, but when it comes to buying a tree, people find that same sum exorbitant."
In Switzerland it is generally assumed that Christmas trees sprout all over the country and are simply there for the taking. As a result, people expect low costs.
But in reality Swiss Christmas trees are grown on plantations and require plenty of care.
"People want Nordmann firs, but they do not grow in Swiss forests," says Luder.
About 70 per cent of Christmas trees on the Swiss market hail from abroad, with imports from Denmark taking the biggest share.
To buck the trend, the Swiss are having their products Forest Stewardship Council-certified by the global conservation agency, WWF, which assures buyers that trees meet environmental and social responsibility standards.
In addition, an association of Christmas tree growers pushes Swiss products by emphasising flexible service, product freshness and the regional economic benefits of buying local.
Hail and grass
At the moment Luder has about 60,000 fir trees on his plantation. About ten per cent of them will end up being chopped down and decorated for the holidays. He says half of the family income derives from the cultivation and sale of Christmas trees.
Future Christmas trees spend the first three years of their lives in a nursery, after which Luder digs them up and replants them out on the farm.
"Eighty per cent flourish – and of these, 80 per cent will make it to maturity," he explains.
Until maturity – between four and ten years – depending on tree type, year-round care is needed.
To avoid grass growing into the branches and drying them out – which buyers find unappealing – the ground beneath them needs to be mowed, fertilised and weeded. But their biggest enemy is hail.
They are also trimmed to enhance their appearance.
"If I were to leave the trees to their natural fate, they would never meet the quality requirements of the Swiss market," says Luder.
Delivered to large distributors and nurseries, his trees are also sold from the farm itself.
Post-Christmas, buyers can take advantage of a special service that allows them to bring their used trees back to the farm, which recycles them as firewood.
When was the very last Christmas tree sold the previous year?
"On December 27," says Luder. "A couple had just come back from Australia and wanted to celebrate a proper Christmas."
Around one million Christmas trees are sold in Switzerland each year.
About 70% of these trees are imported.
The association of Swiss Christmas tree growers, IG Suisse Christbaum, would like to increase the share of locally grown trees up to 70%.
Swiss trees can receive a certificate from the WWF that assures buyers of adherence to environmentally and socially responsible standards.
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