How Yorkshire farmer conquered the Christmas tree market - despite planting them on his 'worst land'

Dickie Ryder with his Christmas trees on his farm at Dace Banks. Credit: Simon Hulme
Dickie Ryder with his Christmas trees on his farm at Dace Banks. Credit: Simon Hulme
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Research, focus groups, progress charts and spreadsheets are commonplace in today’s land of the new business idea where the consultant, bank manager or financial backer analyse and earn money from advising, but there’s still nothing that can beat someone with the courage of their conviction simply getting on with it.

Dickie Ryder planted 300 Christmas trees in the mid 1970s. He had no previous experience of working with them, had come out of pig farming, still had sheep and had planted them on some of his lesser land. This year, starting today for those wanting to pick their own tree, he and his team will be selling Christmas trees for his fortieth year.

Dickie Ryder on his farm at Dace Banks where he sells Christmas trees. Credit: Simon Hulme

Dickie Ryder on his farm at Dace Banks where he sells Christmas trees. Credit: Simon Hulme

"I didn’t do any research into it. I just planted some on my worst land," says Dickie from his Christmas tree enterprise at Fir Tree Farm located a mile down a winding country lane just out of Dacre Bank, near Summerbridge in Nidderdale.

"The thing is because they take about five years to grow to the height that people want, in the case of the Norway Spruce, you can forget about having planted them and if you don’t look after them then you can pretty much forget any idea you might have about selling them.

"They need care. When I bought a much bigger quantity of trees in the winter of 1982-83 was when I started taking the job seriously and I’ve always taken so much effort in getting the trees looking nice ever since."

Having twice had his pig rearing herd, that he had grown to 90 sows, blighted by swine fever and then a pneumonia virus he was more than pig sick even though he recalls his herd being of great quality when he had it. Sheep became his main income with a flock of around 250 Mules selling lambs as stores at Pateley Bridge livestock market and as fat lambs at Wharfedale Farmers Mart in Otley.

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"One thing I’ve learned in the time I’ve been growing trees is that I should have packed up the sheep job a lot of years before I did and planted even more," says Dickie who, at 75 years young is still just as wick as those many years his junior. "The thing with sheep as any sheep farmer will tell you is that they continue to find many different ways of dying.

"I packed up with them during the time of BSE in 1998. I’d had a serious back operation the year previously too. I now have trees across several plots covering around 15 of my 40 acres. I grow a mix of Nordmann Fir, Norway Spruce, the two top ones, plus Noble Fir, Fraser Fir and Blue Spruce.

"The Norway Spruce and the non-needle drop Noble Fir and Fraser Fir have a nice aroma. I don’t see what’s wrong with putting down a bit of Christmas tree paper on the floor – and neither do many of my customers. They keep coming back for the Norway Spruce trees and every other tree come to that. Nobody was too bothered about needle drop or non-needle drop years ago.

"We had one lady who pulled up in her car last year who was initially very excited about coming here, but then didn’t see a tree she really liked. When she saw the Norway Spruces she was chuffed to bits."

Dickie has learned his trade as he has gone along and many of today’s big Christmas tree players in the market throughout the county originally bought from him, but none of what he tried along the way has ever been down to some fancy business plan with copious amounts of paperwork.

"I’ve only just got on to social media in the last few years. Well, it’s not me who is on it. Richard, who works with me in the lead up to Christmas, and one of the other fellers put a Facebook page together for me.

"When I planted my first main trees I thought if I planted them close together I’d get a lot more in, but it doesn’t work like that as some of them then grew lop-sided. I learned, as I’ve always done by my mistakes.

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"The pick your own Christmas tree business has snowballed, to use a winter expression, and I get many families coming around to pick their own growing tree. We take it down for them, they take it home and then their neighbours see it and they come along next. That’s the way it has worked."

Richard Blades joined Dickie five years ago. He’s retired and from Pateley Bridge.

"I bought a tree from Dickie and thought this would be a good little job in the lead-up to Christmas. The wholesale work is quite full-on, but the retail side is great. Families come for the experience of picking their own tree in the woods. They leave here with the freshest tree they could ever have.

"The Norway spruce is my favourite and has the perfect Christmas tree shape. We get a lot of Americans from the base nearby who particularly come for the Fraser Fir, which is the Christmas tree they are used to in the States."

Dickie often gets asked what he does for the other eleven months of the year when he’s not selling Christmas trees.

"Some seem to think you plant a tree one year and miraculously you are able to sell it the next year. The Norway Spruce takes up to 5 years and the non-needle drops between seven t10 years. In springtime you need to spray for aphids, millions of them no bigger than a speck of dust each and if you don’t spray they will suck the tree dry.

"That may need doing two or three times per season. The Nordmann Fir needs bud rubbing, taking out all the dominant buds out of the top laterals so that you get a perfect A shape to the tree. Then there’s pruning, strimming and nap sacking. It’s an all year round job."

Fir Tree Farm at Dacre Bank is open from today until December 22 from 9am until 4pm.

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