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WisBiz In-Depth: Wisconsin ranks 5th in Christmas tree production

By Gregg Hoffmann

If you still put up a "real" Christmas tree, you can rest assured as you trim it that it very likely came from right here in Wisconsin.

And, you're not alone. Many people all over the Midwest and country can say the same thing.

The state ranks fifth in the country in Christmas tree production. Only Oregon, North Carolina, Michigan and Pennsylvania – in that order – rank ahead of the state. Wisconsin produces about 1.6 million trees per year. Oregon produces 6.4 million.

It's a $50 million business in Wisconsin, made up of independent farmers. Many of those tree farms have been in the business for more than one generation.

"I think in the entire country there is one producer who has about 3-4% of the market," said John Ahl, whose family has been in the Christmas tree business for about 50 years near Merillan in Jackson County.

"After that the percentages fall of dramatically for any one producer. The truly is small business, run by families. I don't really know of a conglomerate in it."

This does not mean that these independent farmers don't have a networking system. "We don't grow a commodity that people will just come to us and buy," Ahl said. "We have to market and network our product."

In Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Christmas Tree Association in Portage provides marketing and networking help. "Marketing is a big issue in the Christmas tree industry," said Cheryl Nicholson, executive secretary of the association.

"We provide a buyers' guide for our members, through which they can find and contact buyers," Nicholson said. "Our producers sell to small garden centers and the 'big box' companies."

The WCTA also is linked with the National Christmas Tree Association, which helps market trees around the country. The NCTA has linked with the popular movie and book, "The Polar Express," this season to aid its promotions.

NCTA also sponsors the annual Grand Champion tree competition, which provides the national tree to the White House. Several Wisconsin growers have provided that tree over the years. Jim and Diane Chapman, two-time winners of the Grand Champion honor, were the latest with a Fraser Fir in 2003.

State growers also provide the State Capitol Christmas tree and other official trees around Wisconsin. This year's tree is from the Brule area.

WCTA also is linked with the Christmas Tree Farm Network, an online directory that lists growers and sellers of trees on a state-by-state basis. Association members also have worked with SAVOR Wisconsin, a state online service that provides similar information.

Christmas tree growers also have to be good foresters, in that they have to make sure they have a never-ending, healthy supply of trees. So, the WCTA works closely with the Wisconsin Forestry agency to provide growers with the latest in technology and scientific research on the growing and nurturing of trees.

The Process

The process for growing Christmas trees varies, in part, on the species. Sixteen different varieties of pine are used as Christmas trees around the country. The most popular include the Balsam Fir, Fraser Fir and Scotch Pine.

Most trees that end up in sales lots are 7-10 years old, according to Nicholson. They have gone through a long process from seed to harvest. Some nurseries specialize in planting the seeds and then sell seedlings to growers.

"We start with plugs and put the small trees in greenhouse boxes," Ahl said. "We move then to a transplant bed in 1-2 years. Then, we lift them and transplant them in the field."

During these early years, like any plant, the trees are susceptible to diseases, but growers, with the help of WCTA and others, have become adept at preventing such threats.

Once the trees are in the field, they still must be protected from diseases and are regularly "groomed" so they develop good shapes. Nicholson said an average healthy tree will grow 12 inches a year once it is in the field.

A rule of thumb on harvesting the trees is after two or three hard frosts. The trees become dormant over winter, so growers don't want to wait too late to cut them.

"It has to be a flexible business, like all farming," Nicholson said. "The conditions can vary from year to year."

Ahl's Northern Christmas Trees and Nursery produces about 150,000 trees a year. All are sold wholesale to garden centers and other outlets.

About 100 employees work for the company. They are busiest during the harvest season, but Ahl avoids layoff by having many of the same employees work in his overall nursery operation during other times of the years.

Merrillan and Wautoma both claim to be Christmas tree capitals. It's a friendly competition, one that Ahl even concedes to Wautoma area producers.

"Waushara County is a big area for trees," Ahl said. "Merillan is small (585 population), but it's on the map though. Christmas trees are a big part of the economy here."

Market Share

The "real" Christmas tree market does face competition, and does fluctuate. Artificial trees provide competition. As demographics in the country change, more people don't put up Christmas trees at all. Some might not celebrate Christmas because they are of different cultural backgrounds and religions. Many single people are mobile during the holidays and don't put up trees.

"We do surveys every year," Nicholson said. "In some years, artificial tree sales have increased. In other years, there has been an increase in people with no trees. We have lost market share because of those factors, but sales have remained relatively steady."

Nicholson said environmental concerns should not prevent people from buying "real" Christmas trees.

"That is a misconception," she said. "A real tree is actually better for the environment. They provide oxygen when they are growing. They are recyclable. When you buy a real tree, it benefits the local economy."

This year's crop was good, according to all sources contacted. Nicholson said gypsy moths – always a threat to trees – were down this year.

Ahl said the harvest season also was good this year. "It was a pretty easy harvest," he said. "The weather was temperate. We didn't get a lot of rain. Some times, we can have early snow and cold, and the harvest can be a struggle."

This time of the year always is rewarding for a tree farmer, according to Ahl. "It's always a bit of a relief because the harvest is done," he said. "You drive around and see a lot and think 'those are my trees'."

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