In the midst of the annual holiday hustle and bustle, one symbol stands tall, offering families a carefree activity that will leave lasting memories – selecting their Christmas tree.
“Families aren’t just buying a Christmas tree when they go to a choose-and-cut lot,” says Donna Gilson, spokesperson for the Agricultural Resource Management Division of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP).
“They’re getting an experience and leaving their kids with memories,” she adds. “It’s a time in the crisp winter air, maybe followed by some hot chocolate and even a sleigh ride, with no electronic screens in sight.”
Plenty of Pines
Lucky for Wisconsinites, the state has lots of opportunities to venture out and pick the perfect tree.
“Wisconsin growers harvest around 600,000 trees each year,” says Cheryl Nicholson, executive secretary for the Wisconsin Christmas Tree Producers Association. “We’re considered a specialty crop and part of the green industry.”
She adds that many growers have a cut-your-own farm, helping the industry promote that “feel- good” family value. Most of them also include additional activities such as sleigh rides, gift shops, hot chocolate and cider for a true destination outing. Plus, real trees are better for the environment, allowing consumers to feel positive about buying one.
Derek Ahl is one of the partners at Northern Family Farms in Merrillan – the largest Christmas tree farm in the state. Though his farm doesn’t offer a choose-and-cut option (they sell only wholesale), he agrees with Gilson and Nicholson, adding that the tradition is backed by the entire industry.
“Agritourism is a staple in this industry,” Ahl says. “There are many families that go to farms or retailers as a tradition, and I think that tradition and family values are what make our industry unique.”
Northern Family Farms grows about 3,000 acres of Christmas trees per year, including Fraser fir, balsam fir, Scotch pine and white pine. Other popular varieties in the state include Meyer spruce, Colorado blue spruce and concolor fir.
“Wisconsin’s climate and soils make it a good place to grow trees,” Nicholson says. “Some soils that aren’t great for other crops can produce good Christmas trees. We have large populations of potential customers in Wisconsin or nearby cities, so the market for our trees is nearby.”
To make sure trees are pest-free before shipping across state lines, DATCP performs yearly inspections for pests and diseases at licensed businesses.
“The biggest threats they’re looking for are gypsy moth and pine shoot beetle,” Ahl says. “The gypsy moth caterpillar can defoliate forests and reduce timber quality. DATCP comes out to our farm and inspects every field before harvest.”
Gilson says that the inspections also help DATCP find new pests that haven’t been dealt with before.
“It provides a valuable service to growers as we spot any pests or diseases that are present that might affect their production, even if they aren’t ‘regulated pests,’ ” she says.
Not only do these inspections protect growers and forests, but they also ensure that all Christmas trees being sold are healthy as well, keeping the industry viable and keeping ornaments as the only decorations on trees.
“The Wisconsin Christmas tree industry seems to be quite healthy,” Ahl says. “Supply and demand are in balance after a large overproduction of Christmas trees in recent years.”