Christmas tree producers in Belgium are struggling for seasonal cheer as they wrestle with the impact of high energy costs and inflation fuelled by the war in Ukraine.
“We are suffering from the rise in the price of fuel, fertiliser and all the by-products of plastics,” lamented Gerald de Wouters, manager at leading tree grower Greencap, as he stood in the early-morning December fog.
Around him, workers at a vast plantation in southern Belgium were busily felling conifers destined to decorate living rooms around Europe.
But this year, Santa Claus is set to put his presents under a more expensive tree as Europe grapples with economic upheaval.
Pallets, packaging and labour: costs have gone up across the board more than nine months after Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded his neighbour.
Annual inflation in Belgian is expected to be 9.5 percent for 2022 and wages rise automatically in line with price increases under the country’s legislation.
“The cost of producing a tree has risen by 20 percent,” de Wouters told AFP, as he kept a close eye on his teams.
The Wallonia region of Belgium produces two million Christmas trees each year, making the country the second-largest exporter of fir trees in Europe after Denmark, local authorities say.
Once cut, the trees are loaded onto lorries for delivery across the continent.
But, to make matters worse, de Wouters is also struggling to find lorry drivers as many are discouraged from taking the job due to the soaring price of fuel.
Pine-ing for stability The rising prices for producers are set to have a knock-on effect for consumers, who also face the prospect of seeing the costs of their Christmas meals shoot up too.
Jonathan Rigaux, president of the nursery owners’ union in the Ardennes region, estimated that customers would have to pay “between five percent and 10 percent more this year”, or two to three euros for an average tree.
But despite the current turmoil, growers remain confident they can weather the tougher conditions.
In the past two years, they had “exceptional” sales as Covid restrictions saw leisure activities closed and pushed more people to splash out on decorating their homes at Christmas.
“In difficult times, people refocus on the family,” Rigaux said.
Already, sales so far this December have “started very well” said Arnaud van Voorst, who runs online tree-retailer Humanitree, which gives its profits to helping local youth.
Beyond the current hike in inflation, some are more worried about the longer-term challenge that climate change could pose for growing trees.
“Last year was so wet that it suffocated the roots,” said de Wouters.
This year, a lengthy drought over the summer killed off some trees that can be seen standing desiccated in the middle of the field.
“It’s hard to anticipate,” he said.