Meet the Yorkshire forester growing Christmas trees to supply ever-earlier demand for decorating our homes
David says the biggest changes he has seen in his long career in Christmas tree production, which began way before taking on the farm, are the rise of the Nordmann Fir as the most popular choice of tree, due to its ability to hold on to its needles longer than others, and the earlier demand for trees than was tradition some years ago.
“We are governed by our customers and now most want their trees by the very end of November or very early in December,” says David. “The biggest selling period years ago was nearer to mid-December. We’re 10 days earlier than we used to be. The trees that we grow now are 90 per cent Nordmann Fir with rest divided between Fraser Fir and Norway Spruce.
“The Norway Spruce was the most popular tree years ago. It smells lovely and there’s nothing wrong with it. In fact, you can buy a nice Norway Spruce for around half the price of a Nordmann Fir and if you buy it in mid-December, keep it in a bucket of water in the garage and take it in the week before Christmas it should last ten to twelve days, but people are now wanting to put their trees up in the last week of November and that’s where the Nordmann Fir has become favourite.
David grows over 80,000 trees at any one time, utilising an acreage on Pheasant Hill Farm that borders Dalby Forest, and in several plantations that he owns elsewhere. It’s a business he has grown over the years and has a team of around eight or nine who come in when he needs them, mostly former colleagues in a previous contracting business he ran, plus one or two local tractor drivers.
“I’ve grown Christmas trees for over forty years,” says David. “As a forester, growing Christmas trees is a quick crop in relative terms compared to growing for timber to be cut down when 40-50 years old.
“We cut our Christmas trees at between eight to ten years. I’ve been a forester all my life and I have all the necessary equipment. I just need the manpower during November, which I get from a great team.
“We started cutting for this year’s Christmas tree stock a fortnight ago and we will be cutting right through to the early part of December. In all we will cut somewhere around 8,500 trees which we supply wholesale to farm shops like Cedarbarn in Pickering and Beacon Farm Ice Cream at Sneaton, greengrocers, butchers and all kinds of establishments throughout North and West Yorkshire.
“Having a retail operation is the icing on the cake as you can get a bit of premium in that you’re not going through a wholesale operation. If you can produce something on the farm and sell it direct to the public it’s great. We are fortunate to be able to sell our trees at my good friend Martin Brown’s Redcliffe Farm Shop in Lebberston. It’s a cracking farm shop, the restauarant/café produces lovely meals and the butchery is first class. Martin has been very good to us and our trees our quite complementary to his business.
David’s forestry work took him up into the highlands of Scotland for ten years where he worked for a private investment company during the 80s and 90s acquiring land and planting trees on it on behalf of celebrities using the tax regime of the time to invest.
Around Covid-time, after having moved back to Yorkshire in the 1990s, and starting up a contracting business, where he employed a number of workers, David decided enough was enough on the contracting side and wanted to concentrate on the farm and his other passion, which had developed while in the highlands and had been further nurtured by trips to New Zealand. Red deer.
“One of the main reasons for buying the farm was to have red deer, which we started with nearly twelve years ago. My interest in them came from initially seeing and falling in love with wild deer up in Scotland. It was always my ambition to have my own herd from then.
“We’ve increased the herd to 150 breeding hinds. I enjoy looking after them and what was a bit of a hobby has now grown into a job. We supply high end supermarkets with venison through a major Yorkshire processor. So, half of my job on the farm is looking after deer and the other half is looking after the trees.
“Our hinds will hopefully have 140-150 calves. We keep the calves into their second year with them going for processing at 18-20 months. We grow a little bit of silage and so we keep them out until the weather gets really wet or very poor. That’s when we bring them in to the sheds in their separate herds.
“Renowned deer farmer Richard Elmhirst of Round Green Farm near Worsbrough, has been a huge inspiration. I was lucky to come across him and his colleague Terry Shaw when I first started.
Pheasant Hill runs to around 300 acres with 125 acres down to grass, 140 acres of arable cropping and a substantial amount of woodland of which 20 acres is devoted to Christmas trees, which David is close to clearing at present and will shortly be replanting with his next crop. His arable cropping includes winter wheat, winter and some spring barley, winter beans and oilseed rape.
“We bring in a local contractor for the arable work, Ben Morley of Marishes,” says David. “But it is Sara who gets the short straw. I have a nice interesting job outside while Sara fills in the paperwork for the endless amount of red tape we all have to comply with these days.
“Our daughters Rosie and Harriet work with me with the trees too and have a good eye on selection when we walk through the crops and tag trees based on size and quality. Rosie studied agriculture and has just gone to New Zealand for a year and rather like me I hope that her love of deer is enhanced further by visiting New Zealand. Rosie already has a similar passion to myself.
David says he still thoroughly enjoys his move from being purely a forester to being a farmer.
“Whether you are growing trees or farming or doing both you never stop learning. You get to speak with likeminded people who give you new inspiration, new ideas and techniques.
“I don’t think you do farming to earn huge amounts of money. It’s a way of life that I enjoy and find very interesting.