Mike Craig

Talking Trees At Ayr’s Premier Christmas Tree Farm

By Gill Sherry

It’s that time of year when we start to think about Christmas. Unless, like Mike Craig, you’re a Christmas tree farmer. In which case you’re thinking about Christmas every single day of the year.

“We’re a fifth generation Ayrshire family. We’ve been involved in farming of different types for at least 135 years, but our main business is actually operating Livestock Marts.”

He’s referring to Ayr Livestock Mart where Craig Wilson Ltd, of which Mike is an owner, hold weekly sales of sheep and cattle. Adjacent to the winding driveway of that Mart is, however, evidence of the family’s festive farming operation.

“Around 20 years ago,” Mike explains, “we were advised that there were opportunities to plant and subsequently market Christmas trees. We experimented with that and then we ended up buying a Christmas tree farm.”

The farm, near Newton Stewart, covered 290 acres and although partially stocked, was quite run down. Twenty years later it has grown to 350 acres and, together with the 50-acre site in Ayr, the family is now growing up to 500,000 trees at any one time.

“It’s one of those things,” Mike laughs. “You get into it and you just keep going!”

The Christmas trees are planted as seedlings which then take between eight and ten years to grow. 95% of Mike’s trees are of the Nordmann Fir variety. But there’s more to harvesting a Christmas tree than you might think.

“At the start of the year… when they’re dormant, we shape them. A team of guys with clippers will actually sheer and shape each individual tree. Then we work up to the point around March, April prepping the ground to plant again. From then on, we’re fertilising, checking for any abnormalities, weeds, diseases. And around August, we start putting the feelers out to the market place.”

The trees are sold from the north of Scotland to the south of England so it’s very much a countrywide operation. They also have a retail section at the Mart which they opened after winning the Grower of the Year Award ten years ago.

“We got a lot of publicity at that point,” says Mike. “We won that competition and… you have the right then to supply the tree that goes outside 10 Downing Street. So we did that and that raised our profile. People kept knocking at our door looking for individual trees!”

But the Prime Minister wasn’t their only high profile customer.

“We did supply The Ritz,” Mike informs me. “Several times actually over a ten-year period.”

This is not in any way boastful but rather, said in a very business-like manner. It serves to remind me that Mike is a very busy man, especially at this time of year.

“As of November, through to December, we’ll all be working 24/7. We have to shift something like 15,000 trees in seven days. We’re not quite sure how we’re going to do that but we’ll work it out.”

Curious to learn a little more about the actual farming of Christmas trees, I ask Mike to talk me through the process.

“We sell cut trees without roots,” he tells me. “The roots are still in the ground so what we’re actually doing is cultivating the top six inches… to put the replacement seedlings into. Some of that root is actually breaking down and putting nutrients back into the soil which allows the new seedlings to grow a bit more efficiently.”

Mike admits to being frustrated when people accuse them of killing the trees.

“We’re not killing trees, we’re farming trees. For every one that we cut, we plant at least one more. It’s actually rotation that we work on.”

What about recycling? Do they have a system in place?

“We haven’t done that because…the town Council actually does that. They set up a recycling facility down at the car park at Ayr beach. If you deposit your Christmas tree down there, they put them in the sand dunes. It helps to anchor the dunes, stops them eroding.”

Before that, though, while the trees are still looking fabulously festive in our homes, is there a secret to preventing the needles from falling off?

“Yes, there is.”

A moment of silence follows and I’m beginning to wonder if he’s going to tell me, or if it will remain a secret.

“It’s really simple,” he says, at last. “Cut the trees as late as possible.”

Ah, so nothing you or I can do in our own front rooms?

“Yes. When you take the tree into the house… you instantly notice that Nordic smell. That is the tree respirating and there’s a small amount of moisture coming out. So it does help to put them into a bucket of water when you get them and then to put them into a water retaining stand and just top that up every now and again.”

So now we know!

From Mike’s point of view, cutting the trees as late as possible means they’re not sitting deteriorating for any length of time.

“We give them about four days between cutting and netting. It’s important for the chemical processes to stop which is the four days on the ground after they’ve been cut.”

Being in control of the timeline allows Mike to react to demand, ensuring his trees are up to four weeks fresher than most other retailers.

“I think that’s why people come back.”

But that’s not the only reason customers return year after year.

“The guys we’ve got working here… they actually do trees, they know trees. That’s their core activity so… we can advise people better. If they tell us what they’re looking for, we can cater for that. We get situations where people ask for one particular tree… we literally go out and find the tree and bring it to them.”

In addition to that personal service, it’s good to know that by buying a locally grown tree, we are putting money back into the community. Even the temporary workers, employed by Mike to help harvest the trees at Christmastime, are mostly from the local area: ground workers, tree pruners, rugby players…

“We do get a lot of rugby players,” Mike says with a smile.

“Young lads who are contracted to play for local clubs. They may not be making a huge amount of money playing rugby so they need a little bit extra. They’re big guys, they tend to be really helpful, you know, being able to manhandle a tree rather than another player!”

I can’t help but picture a huge Nordmann Fir being tackled to the ground by a brawny guy in shorts and a mud-splattered head band…

“The staff,” Mike says, bringing me back to reality, “really enjoy the interaction with the customers. They get a real lift from it… they can tell them all about the trees. It gives them a real buzz because they’re seeing the joy that people get from choosing their tree. And we have some great fun getting big trees into little cars!”

They sell around 2,500 trees from their premises in Ayr, ranging in size from 4 to 25 feet and customers are welcome to go and choose their tree anytime from the start of December.

“It’s the whole experience,” Mike informs me. “They can get easily parked, they can get some advice from knowledgeable guys and girls, they get a great choice of freshly cut trees and we help to get the tree into their car. Or we deliver the tree to their house. We make it as painless as possible. We want to treat people as we would want to be treated.”

I think that’s what you would call the cherry on the cake. Or, in this particular case, the star on top of the tree.