Kicking off the Christmas tree season with Alice in Dairyland

Carol Spaeth-Bauer
Wisconsin State Farmer

BROOKLYN - Like every tree grower, every farmer, in Wisconsin, Greg Lancaster loves rain, but this year he had hundreds of trees die because of too much rain, even on their high limestone ground in Green County.

"It's been a year of way too much rain," said Lancaster who owns Winterberry Tree Farm, south of Madison. 

Alice in Dairyland, Kaitlyn Riley, talks with New Glarus fourth and fifth grade students at Lancaster's Winterberry Tree Farm in Brooklyn on Nov. 15. Students spent the morning learning about Wisconsin agriculture and the Christmas tree industry.

Typically, once a tree gets to be about waist high, a wet year or a dry year doesn't affect the trees, but evergreen trees don't like water over their root system, "so any time that happens during the growing season, they just suffocate and die," said Lancaster. "So it's been a tough year."

Lancaster's Winterberry Tree Farm and Alice in Dairyland, Kaitlyn Riley, kicked off the 2018 Christmas tree season on Nov. 15 when Riley helped cut down a Christmas tree. Riley spent the morning talking with New Glarus and Albany fourth and fifth grade students about Wisconsin agriculture and the state's tree industry. 

Students moved through education stations hosted by the Albany and New Glarus FFA chapters and the Green County Conservation League.

Riley pointed out the benefits of buying real Christmas trees to students such as habitats for animals, recycling trees by grinding for mulch and putting nutrients back into the ground, supporting farms and benefiting the environment. 

Lancaster and his wife, Vickie, showed students how wreaths were made with evergreen branches and how to tell the difference between pine and other evergreen trees. 

Greg Lancaster, owner of Lancaster's Winterberry Tree Farm in Brooklyn, shows fourth and fifth grade students how needles come off the branch on pine trees on Nov. 15. Students visited the farm to learn about the Christmas tree industry and to see Alice in Dairyland help cut a tree to mark the beginning of the 2018 Christmas tree season.

Holding up a branch, Lancaster pointed to needles coming off the main stem in little bundles telling students this is characteristic of pine trees. Other evergreens such as firs, spruce or juniper have needles that come off the branch individually. 

While balsam fir is the most aromatic variety of Christmas tree, Lancaster said he doesn't smell the fragrant scents of the evergreens because he's around them all the time. 

Related:Want to cut your own tree this Christmas? Wisconsin has plenty of tree farms.

When it comes to a tree holding onto needles, Lancaster said they all do well, but typically the shorter the needle, the longer the tree will last. 

If looking for a tree to hold heavier ornaments, Frasier firs have stronger branches. 

Being in the industry for about 25 years, Lancaster has seen trends change. Balsam fir was the most popular choice for Christmas trees for "umpteen years," but about 20 years ago that changed to Frasier fir, he pointed out.

Vickie Lancaster shows students how a fresh wreath is made at Lancaster's Winterberry Tree Farm in Brooklyn on Nov. 15. Students learned about the Christmas tree industry and watched Alice in Dairyland help cut the first Christmas tree.

Over the years he and his wife have seen a decrease in the number of wreaths sold. They used to be able to sell a wreath to maybe one out of every three people who came to buy a tree, but "that's not the case anymore," said Lancaster.

While he's seen a decrease in the number of real trees sold also, most people buy real trees for the experience of visiting the tree farm as a family to pick out a tree. 

"So buying a wreath isn't as much of an experience," Lancaster said. 

Since buying a real tree is mostly about the experience, Lancaster doesn't think Amazon selling real trees will impact the industry.

"People want to go to a lot, get needles on them, smell the trees," Lancaster said. 

As the nation's fifth largest Christmas tree producer, Wisconsin has an annual harvest of more than 600,000 trees valued at more than $16 million from more than 850 tree farms in the state, covering more than 23,600 acres, according to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. 

With an agricultural background, Lancaster knows how to grow trees, but the reason they got into the Christmas tree season had little to do with agriculture. 

"We got into the Christmas tree business so that we could celebrate Christ in Christmas and remind people of the real reason for Christmas," Lancaster explained. "So we do things a little differently than most choose and cut Christmas tree farms. We use it as an opportunity to remind people what Christmas is about."