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Christmas tree farmers warn the festive tree may be poorer quality due to drought

ABC News logo ABC News 9/08/2018 Sarah Moss

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The drought is impacting upon a wide range of industries, including one that is not usually in the limelight just yet — Christmas tree production.

Christmas tree growers are warning that this year's trees will not be the traditional colour, shape, scent and height everyone usually likes.

Despite the fact that each tree produced is lovingly hand-watered, pruned and watched over for at least five years, this year's street batch are likely to display more 'personality' than previous years, and they will also be in short supply.

John Cappello and his brother Will, of Sydney, have supplied the Sydney basin fruit shops, Rotary and Scout clubs with wholesale Christmas trees for the past 10 years, but the drought has put an end to that.

"Unfortunately this year has been the first time I've had to notify all my groups that we wouldn't be able to supply them with wholesale trees," Mr Cappello said.

John Cappello on his farm in Windsor. © ABC News/Sofie Wainwright John Cappello on his farm in Windsor. Last year, despite the fact it was tough, the growers were able to provide trees as usual because they had a number of good trees still in the paddock.

"We tried to irrigate where we could and we still managed to supply to all our customers last year in the hope that we'd get some further rain and the drought would turn around," he said.

But that has not happened.

"We still have some great trees for our local customers, but unfortunately the wholesale side of the business is pretty much non-operational this year," Mr Cappello said.

"When there's plenty of rain trees are really bushy with no gaps, really thick dark green colour, but what you'll see this year is where branches haven't re-shot after a trim.

"There's more space in between them and they will also be a lighter green in colour, almost yellow."

Lack of water and native predators keep trees scrawny

Lynette Rideout-Keanelly, a third-generation orchardist in Oakdale, NSW, is the owner and manager of a fruit farm and, much to her parents' chagrin, Christmas trees.

"I'm trying to realise the dream here, but I'm set back a long way," she said.

Ms Rideout-Keanelly started growing Christmas trees 12 years ago and now, due to the drought, she is spending a lot of sleepless night worrying about that decision.

"I can't sleep of a night worrying about where we are going to go with all this," she said.

"It's not just going to affect us this coming season, it will affect us into the future. We could be looking at hardship out of this for at least 10 years."

Last summer, which was exceptionally dry, the farm used all its stored water supplies, so at the moment it is relying on water being delivered to the property.

Pre-purchased hand-pruned Christmas trees remain in a paddock until the desired height and shape is reached. © ABC Illawarra/Sarah Moss Pre-purchased hand-pruned Christmas trees remain in a paddock until the desired height and shape is reached. A local charity organisation, Dilly Drought Drive, pays for it because Ms Rideout-Keanelly cannot afford to buy it herself.

"Normally Christmas trees are very hardy, very drought-tolerant, and they rely on natural rainfall," she said.

"We do lay out irrigation systems as required, but at this point in time we don't have the water to even do that.

"It takes five years from the time you plant a Christmas tree to the time it's ready for harvest, so it's a long-term investment."

Ms Rideout-Keanelly inspects her trees daily and finds a lot of them pulled out of the ground by native predators that lack anything else to eat.

"The wallabies are hungry and they'll eat anything they can get that's green. They are just yanking them out of the ground," she said.

Ms Rideout-Keanelly fears that if the drought does not kill these trees it is likely that the wildlife will.

Lack of water stunts tree growth

Ms Rideout-Keanelly hand-waters her latest batch of young trees because it is the most economical use of the water she has.

"This year we haven't got the height growth and we haven't got thickness on all of our trees that we'd like," she said.

"If people want a fresh Christmas tree this year, they are just going to have to be tolerant of the product.

"We cannot do anything to change this situation. We are doing our absolute best and so are the trees, so just appreciate them for what they are."

For Ms Rideout-Keanelly, tolerance is a big issue during the drought.

"People have to understand that we are growing a product in particularly trying weather conditions, and it doesn't matter what avenue of farming you're in, we are all doing it tough at the moment," she said.

"So even if it's fresh fruit and veg, if it's not perfect just accept it for what it is and be grateful that it's there at all.

"I guess that's the biggest message, just be grateful because there's going to be a shortage of a lot of things this year, not just Christmas trees."

Visit Drought SOS: For more news, information and how to help Australian farmers.

Pictures: The Wider Image: Australia's drought - the cancer eating away at farms

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