Wisconsin tree bound for the White House

Colleen Kottke
Associate Editor

Oconto — While Dave and Mary Vander Velden have been honored to provide the state capitol Christmas tree in 2013, Tuesday's tree cutting at the couple's Whispering Pines Tree Farm was nothing short of a dream come true.

The Oconto couple will be providing the National Christmas tree destined for display in the White House Blue Room in Washington, D.C.

“It’s a dream. It’s like a Super Bowl. It’s like a gold medal at the Olympics it doesn’t get any better,” Dave Vander Velden told members of the media gathered Tuesday at Whispering Pines Tree Farm for the official tree-cutting ceremony of the rare 20-foot Balsam-Veitch fir cross - a product of Dave's penchant for experimenting with varieties of trees.

VanderVelden said the tree is a rare cross between a Fraser fir native to North Carolina and a Veitch fir, which is native to Japan. He began experimenting with those types of trees years ago in an effort to find a successful and popular hybrid.

“I never really found it, but they are very nice trees,” he said.

Since 1966, members of the National Christmas Tree Association have presented the official White House Christmas Tree for display in the Blue Room. Each year, NCTA hosts a national tree contest, at which growers, industry experts and consumers vote to select the Real Christmas Tree grower who will provide the official White House Christmas Tree, according to the NCTA website.

This 20-foot Balsam-Veitch fir cross grown at Whispering Pines Tree Farm in Oconto will be heading to Washington DC.

To qualify for the national contest, growers must first win their state or regional competitions, so being named National Grand Champion is quite an achievement. The Vander Veldens entered the National Christmas Tree Contest four times before winning in 2015.

The tree was selected after White House staff members combed the Vander Velden's tree farm looking for a tree that fit the select criteria: size, shape, color and scent.

"It's a very big honor to present a tree (to the White House)," Vander Velden said.."It doesn’t get better than that.”

This is only the third time that a tree farm from Wisconsin has been selected to stand in the Blue Room at the White House. The last time was five years ago when Schroeder's Forevergreens produced an award-winning tree from their Neshkoro farm.

Students from Tank Elementary School in Green Bay and Oconto Elementary School learn about the importance of the Christmas Tree industry while  attending the official tree cutting for the National Christmas Tree at Whispering Pines Tree Farm in Oconto on Nov. 15.

Sharing in the Vander Veldens' excitement were grade school children from Tank Elementary School in Green Bay and Oconto Elementary School. In addition to witnessing the tree-cutting, students spent a portion of the morning learning about Wisconsin agriculture and the Christmas tree industry.

According to DATCP, Wisconsin is the nation’s fifth-largest Christmas tree producer, with an annual harvest of more than 600,000 trees valued at more than $16 million. There are more than 850 Christmas tree farms in the state, covering more than 23,600 acres.

Among those in attendance were Wisconsin Ag Secretary Ben Brancel and 69th Alice in Dairyland Ann O'Leary.. The Christmas tree cutting by Alice in Dairyland is held each year on a different tree farm. The annual tree-cutting is sponsored by the Wisconsin Christmas Tree Producers Association.

Alice in Dairyland Ann O'Leary (center) had the double honor of not only cutting down the state's first official Christmas tree of the season, but the tree is also the National Christmas that will stand in the Blue Room of the White House.

O’Leary, used a handsaw to make the first cuts in the trunk.

“I hope the Obama family cherishes the Christmas tree they will get this year from Wisconsin,” O’Leary said.

Other cuts followed, including from state Secretary of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Bill Brancel, Jerry Vander Velden, and finally Dave and Mary Vander Velden.

Whispering Pines farm manager Chris Duffy finished the job with a chainsaw, as several other employees helped direct the tree on top of waiting twine to wrap the tree up for shipment.

Whispering Pines Tree Farm employee Dean Krzewina cuts pieces from the stump of the balsam fir tree that will be displayed in the White House throughout the Christmas season on November 15, 2016 in Oconto, Wisconsin.

Following the ceremony, the tree was loaded into a trailer and will be hauled by one of Schneider National’s Ride of Pride cabs, driven by Chip Hill, which salutes veterans.

“I’m very proud of doing this,’ said Hill, an Air Force veteran of Desert Shield and Desert Storm from Green Bay.

The Vander Velden's will also make the trip to Washington D.C. where they will present the winning tree to First Lady Michelle Obama on Nov. 25.

Whispering Pines owners Dave and Mary Vander Velden will present the tree to first lady Michelle Obama as it pulls up to the White House in a horse-drawn carriage. They will be accompanied by Dave’s father, Jerry, and Mary’s sister, Carole Dessart of Green Bay.

Mary and Dave Vander Velden of Oconto, owners of Whispering Pines Tree Farm, stand by the fir tree that was cut down to be shipped to the White House as the Official White House Christmas Tree.

“It’s more than just a great honor,” Dave said.

“I’m so excited,” Mary said. “I‘m jumping out of my skin ... it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Mary said her husband has been giddy since winning the national contest about 16 months ago.

“We’ll look at each other, and we’ll be like ‘Oh my gosh, we’re going to the White House,’” she said. “It hasn’t sunk in quite yet. It’s awesome.”

Kent Tempus of the Green Bay Press Gazette contributed to this story.