Tom Van Dusen
Nation Valley News
KEMPTVILLE — Christmas tree farmer “Pud” Johnston, 95, agrees with the broad impression there’s been an early run on natural trees this season, partly attributable to the stay-at-home-and-decorate mood fostered by COVID-19, but he isn’t going to run out of stock any time soon.
After all, Pud — everybody calls him that, even in professional circles — has 75,000 trees, Scotch pine and other varieties, on the 300 acres he and late brother Eric purchased for $6 an acre on Porter Road south east of Kemptville back in 1952, and there are already plans to add another 10,000 this spring.
As he welcomed a steady stream of customers to one of Johnston Brothers pick-your-own lots on a cold and bitter weekday, Pud allowed that this has been the best start to a season in 68 years, the length of time he’s been involved in the farm, part of it remotely as he worked as a professional forester after graduating from University of Toronto in 1949.
He also spent time in the Armed Forces, serving among other things as a firearms instructor, a talent that fits well into his hobby of hunting waterfowl as far away as Saskatchewan: When Pud is working as he still does every day, or when he’s holidaying, he’s in the bush, an active, outdoor lifestyle which he says is largely responsible for his longevity and excellent health.
The current run on Christmas trees isn’t just because of C-19. The Canadian Christmas Tree Growers Association says sales have been steadily trending upwards for the past five years, many consumers veering back to natural after a flirtation with artificial trees.
The Johnstons are enthusiastic promotes of the benefits of natural Christmas trees as a renewable crop, from producing oxygen and serving as wildlife habitat, to providing jobs for thousands of Canadians.
Smaller Eastern Ontario operators such as Fallowfield Tree Farm, which sells 1,500 trees in a normal season and expects to move 1,000 more this time out, say they can handle the spike in pre-cut, pick-your-own and delivered-to-you sales — as does Pud. They welcome the business boom.
The most coveted variety seems to be the more uniformly shaped, more compact, relative newcomer Frasier fir, which Pud grows because there’s a market — but he isn’t overly impressed, preferring the long tradition and longer branches of Scotch pine. Unlike some other suppliers and retailers, he doesn’t charge a premium for a Frasier; the price of all his trees starts at $55 for nine feet and can climb to over $100 depending on height.
Greeting new arrivals at the lot, Pud — who was nicknamed 90 years ago after a comic book character — chats briefly with them, recognizing several as repeat customers; most are fully prepared with pickup trucks, saws and tape measures and don’t require loaners; the process is to pay on the way out. If they don’t have a truck, Pud binds the chosen tree in what he calls his “pine cone” so fits snuggly in the trunk.
Johnston Brothers is also worked by wife Sheila, son Kerry, four grandchildren part-time, and other helpers during peak season, a commodity harder to come by during the pandemic. While the farm’s primary Christmas tree market area is Eastern Ontario, wholesale and retail, its reach is extending; the family also operates a sawmill, offers live trees for landscaping, grows tall trees which become hydro poles, and gives wagon rides.
Recently, Pud sold a tractor-trailer load of trees to buyers from Stratford who lost their original supplier. Somehow they heard about Johnston Brothers and came calling. He hasn’t been paid yet but knows he will be; old school, Pud bases many transactions on trust.
Having outlived the competition — he knows of no older working tree farmer anywhere — Pud is a recognized expert in the field who in the past has addressed international conferences. And Pud doesn’t mind talking about his experiences between customers with an underdressed, chattering visitor while he basks in the warmth of four layers including durable wool breeches be bought up north back in the day.
During the chat, two chilled cyclists bounce by on one of the Johnston Brothers trails. They’re welcome, says Pud, as are walkers and other naturalists who help him keep an eye on things and sometimes alert him to trouble among the pines.
While Christmas tree theft isn’t common, the odd Grinch has made off with a load when the busy Johnstons have been looking the other way.