When Kerry Johnston first heard that the Yellowknife Scouts wanted to buy Christmas trees from him, he thought it was a hoax.
Johnston has been running the Johnston Brothers Tree Farm in North Grenville, Ontario for the past 25 years. He said his father and uncle started the farm as a hobby in 1952 and it has since grown to become the largest supplier of wholesale trees in eastern Ontario.
This year, for the first time – as first reported by CTV News – the tree farm has a customer nearly 5,000 km away in the Northwest Territories. But Johnston was initially skeptical they were legitimate.
“That didn’t make a lot of sense to me. There are lots of trees between here and Yellowknife,” he told Cabin Radio. “I was a little apprehensive. I didn’t know what to expect.”
After speaking with the Yellowknife Scouts, however, Johnston learned they really did want to order trees from the farm as their normal supplier could not deliver this year.
“It was a mad scramble to get trucking sorted out,” Johnston said. “But to their credit, they pulled it off.”
For the past three decades, the Yellowknife Scouts have held an annual fundraiser selling real Christmas trees to northerners – at times shipping trees as far away as Cambridge Bay.
Mike Kalnay, who coordinates the tree yard, said the Yellownife Scouts have been buying trees from the same supplier for the past 20 years. This year, that supplier sold its entire inventory to Walmart in the United States.
That’s a growing trend in the tree business, Kalnay said, as it’s easier for vendors to sell to one big client rather than multiple smaller ones.
“If Walmart asks for 100,000 trees, that’s way easier to just load them all onto a train and wave goodbye,” he said.
There is a shortage of real Christmas trees across North America, Kalnay said, and he has seen prices rise around 40 percent over the past three years.
Johnston said his farm is so busy this year that he has had to turn away people looking to buy trees for the past six months.
“Business has been ridiculous,” he said.
Kalnay said the Yellowknife Scouts lucked out when they were able to order this year’s supply from the Johnston Brothers Tree Farm as one of their longtime clients retired.
Kalnay visited the farm himself while he was in Ontario to check out the trees. He even picked out the seven-metre tree that will appear in the NWT’s Legislative Assembly.
“These are real high-quality trees. Super premium stuff. So people are going to be happy with the trees we’re bringing in this year,” he said.
The 420 trees are now headed to Yellowknife on a train somewhere between Montreal and Calgary, Kalnay said. He’s hoping they arrive early next week and, as soon as they do, he said the tree yard will be up and running.
The Christmas tree fundraiser has been particularly important for the Yellowknife Scouts over the past two years as they haven’t been able to go door-to-door selling popcorn during the pandemic.
Kalnay said that normally accounts for half of the organization’s fundraising for the year, which supports camp buildings, programming, rentals, and scouts who aren’t able to pay the registration fee.
For Johnston, he’s happy that his farm will play a role in bringing Christmas to families in the North.
“I’m a firm believer in tradition and I’m a firm believer that families need to connect and to be strong,” he said.
”I’m proud that we are able to facilitate that in the form of a Christmas tree that is a symbolic gathering for the ages.”