Pandemic weary families opt for fresh Christmas trees

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer
Aaron Weisflog (from left), Caden Knauer and Matthew Likins haul a large tree for a customer at Trees For Less Nursery in Grafton.

Despite limitations imposed on small businesses by the coronavirus pandemic, Greg Hann's family has been working diligently to provide families with a safe, memorable experience this Christmas.

"We have new customers coming to the farm already even before Thanksgiving," Hann said. "We've already doubled our sales. People just want to decorate their homes, they just want that happy feeling that a live tree helps to provide."

Located in Oregon, Wis., just south of Madison, the Hann's have been growing Christmas trees on 50 acres of land since Greg's father purchased the farm in 1969. Today the farm is home to 52,000 trees.

As the pandemic stretched on through the summer, the family decided to implement changes to their business which provides an "old-fashioned Christmas" experience complete with wagon rides out to the tree plantation, visits by Santa and Mrs. Claus, hot cider and fresh popped popcorn and a Christmas shop.

"There are some growers that made the decision to close all their inside facilities, leaving people to visit and purchase their trees all outdoors," Hann said.

Hann says those who opt to pay for their tree outdoors may do so, but guests will still be allowed inside the Christmas shop to purchase items and Santa and his better half will still be on site joining visitors outdoors.

Santa and Mrs. Claus greet young visitors to Hann's Christman Farm near Oregon, Wis.

"We will also have limited wagon ride activities and we won't have as much indoor seating as we usually have," he said. "We've also constructed heated outdoor hand washing stations."

Buy local

With over 700,000 trees grown on 859 Christmas tree farms in the state (according to 2017 USDA data), buyers have plenty of options to buy local.

Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) officials encourage consumers to buy Wisconsin grown evergreens and green holiday decorations to avoid invasive plant pests that could impact state growers economically.

RELATED: Wisconsin growers to donate 850 evergreens for Trees for Troops

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While many species are not established in Wisconsin’s landscape, in prior years DATCP has detected invasive insects on products from other states. Last year, for example, an invasive pest called elongate hemlock scale (EHS) was found on Fraser and balsam fir wreaths, trees, baskets, and boughs from eastern states. EHS is a threat to Wisconsin’s Christmas trees, native hemlock and balsam fir forests, and decorative evergreens.

“One simple way to avoid EHS is to make sure your fir tree or wreath was grown in Wisconsin, since this pest has never been found on the landscape in our state,” said Brian Kuhn, Director of DATCP’s Bureau of Plant Industry. “EHS can survive on cut trees and wreaths for weeks, even in harsh winter weather."

Leah Davis holds the tree while Steven begins cutting down the family Christmas tree at Country Side Trees in Walworth on Nov. 24.

New traditions

Hann says he often sees multiple generations of families visiting the farm to carry on the tradition of selecting a fresh cut Christmas tree.

Younger families who have eco-friendly world views are more interested in purchasing a real tree from a sustainable grower than an artificial one.

"We have more and more millennials visiting the farm with their families. They are really tuned into what's good for the environment and local economy. That mentality resonates with the real tree industry: how we're growing it on the land, how our industry provides natural habitat for many species, and that the trees are replenished year after year," he said. "They also want the experience of a tradition they can share with their family for generations to come."

Micro-economy

Those who choose to purchase real trees grown in Wisconsin support by a local workforce that in turn supports a micro-economy during the pandemic.

"With so many people laid off from restaurants and other jobs, I think its even more important during times like these. This year we have Wisconsin growers that are paying the wages for those people," Hann said. "I've had more bartenders, waitresses and cooks this year helping me out than ever before. It's nice to know that's a local economy that keeps Wisconsin strong compared to an artificial tree that's just shipped over here from another country."

Many laid off from jobs in the hospitality industry have found employment working on Christmas tree farms around the state.

Demand driving shortages?

With more people staying home for the holidays and opting to embrace the authentic Christmas spirit with a live tree, many wonder if there will be a shortage of trees.

"There's more of a demand for Christmas trees but I don't think it will be like (a shortage) of toilet paper by any means," Hann laughed.

While Wisconsin has enjoyed good growing seasons for evergreens over the past three years, there's a longstanding shortage in Canada’s supply of fresh trees that when coupled with an anticipated heightened demand could leave some families feeling like victims of the Grinch.

“It is an odd year,” Shirley Brennan, executive director of the Christmas Tree Farmers of Ontario, told The Star. “We knew in August we would be out of trees."

Brennan told the news outlet that all wholesale orders for pre-cut trees have been filled, but there simply isn’t enough product to meet all the demand, a challenge that growers also faced last year.

Five million more Christmas trees — a total of 32.8 million — were purchased in the U.S. back in 2018 compared to 2017, according to the National Christmas Tree Association, based on a poll conducted by Nielson/Harris after the 2019 Christmas season.

Oregon, the country's leading producer of Christmas trees, saw a drop in the number of trees cut from almost 6.5 million in 2012 to about 4.7 million in 2017, according to USDA's Census of Agriculture.

"There was such a glut on the West Coast 10 years ago that many growers went out of business or were forced out of business," said Paul Shroeder, past president of the National Christmas Tree Association and former owner of North Countree Christmas Trees in northern Wisconsin.

Wisconsin ranks fifth in Christmas tree production in the U.S., with more than 700,000 trees harvested in 2017. That's up from 611,000 in 2012. And that crop is sustainable, with 1 to 3 seedlings planted for every real Christmas tree harvested.

Jacob Strauch, 8 of Eau Claire, trims small branches from the bottom of the Christmas tree he helped his grandparents harvest from a tree farm in the Town of Brunswick, Eau Claire County.

Farms were one of the most popular places for consumers to buy real trees in 2018, tied with chain stores, according to NCTA.

“Last year we waited too long and weren't able to find a Fraser fir (the gold standard of Christmas trees due to needle retention)," said Mary Harlow, who has had a real tree since her childhood. "You may not get your first choice but I've always found a Christmas tree. It may not have been the species or the size or shape I was looking for but I've always had the experience of finding that fragrant tree and that's what matters most to me."

Chelsey Lewis of the Milwaukee journal Sentinel contributed to this report.