Some choose-and-cut customers drive considerable distances to purchase their trees at Rainbow’s End Christmas Tree Farm near Stanton, MI for several reasons. First, Rainbow’s End offers a choice of eight different species of trees for choose-and-cut, including an unusual fir not normally seen in the area: Cork bark fir.
Jon Muilenburg, owner, learned about cork bark fir early in his career, when he was selling trees on Christmas Tree Lots in California, his home state. “Cork bark firs have a narrow conical shape with a very slim profile, with short branches, a shape many customer like. They also have soft, almost spongy needles, great needle retention, and a unique scent,” explained Muilenburgs’ adult daughter Taryn, who helps with the Christmas-time sales and deliveries at Rainbow’s End on weekends.
The main problem with growing cork bark fir in Michigan is that are native to the Southwestern U.S. and bud early in the season, making them prone to frost damage. However, they don’t push all their buds at once. If some lateral buds are damaged and the tree is vigorous, it may fill in the damaged areas and still be salable. The most significant problem is cold damage to the leader, but because they are popular with his customers, Muilenburg continues to grow them.
“Concolor firs have a lot of problems too, but Dad continues to plant them due to customer demand,” noted Taryn. “We have a surprising number of customers who like our white pines, even though the branches aren’t strong enough to hold ornaments well. Our best seller is Fraser fir, and blue spruce is the runner-up. The hardy Black Hills spruce is also popular.” Douglas and balsam fir round out the Muilenburg’s selection. “The most popular tree size with our customers is six to seven feet.”
Second, Rainbow’s End has surprisingly affordable prices. “A lot of our customers make the drive 45 minutes one-way from Grand Rapids because of our prices. In Grand Rapids, you’d expect to pay $80 to $100 for an eight-foot Fraser fir. Although the Fraser is our highest priced tree, ours are $6 a foot up to 10-feet-tall, and $8 a foot above that. Our other firs are $5 a foot, and many of our pines and spruces are $20 a tree. Customers come to Rainbow’s End from as far as Chicago, particularly if they are planning to visit a relative in our area. Prices are even higher there than in Grand Rapids.”
Third, Rainbow’s End gives good service. Taryn and younger sister Bree serve hot chocolate and hot cider, made from Golden Delicious apples from their ½ acre orchard, on weekends. “We wrap trees. About 90 percent of our customers request wrapping. For smaller trees we use a baler, and for larger ones we use a winch and pulley. We also drill a lot of trees to fit a Stand Strait tree stand. We only sell about 15-20 of the tree stands a year, but a lot of our customer own them and appreciate having their trees drilled.”
Customers have the choice of driving into the field and loading their cut trees themselves (some even bring their own chain saws), or they can cut the tree, and “we’ll bring it out of the field and load it for them. For the future, we’re hoping to get a pair of draft horses to pull a sleigh to the field, as an added attraction.”
For now, the Muilenburgs’ 19 alpacas are an attraction that many of their customers look forward to visiting. “People love them. They make a friendly ‘humming sound’ that is fascinating.”
A 100+ year-old barn came with the farm when the Muilenburgs purchased the property 26 years ago. The weathered wood and old timbers create an old-fashioned, welcoming atmosphere to their Christmas season sales.
“Dad plants trees specifically for bough material for making wreaths, garlands and grave blankets. He knows which trees they are, and only takes the lowest few branches. Fraser fir make the nicest wreaths. My Mother makes 90 percent of the wreaths. I can make them, but I’m not very good at it,” Taryn admitted. “My sister and I are more valuable helping with deliveries. We also have one employee, Amelia, who can put wreaths together very quickly. She works at a neighboring apple orchard and comes to make wreaths for us when work is finished at the orchard.”
Potential customers are also drawn to Rainbow’s End by Taryn’s Facebook posts. Last year, she decided to ask readers of the Farm’s Facebook page to send in photos of their Halloween costumes. The family’s favorite costume received a small tree—a clever way to remind Halloweeners that Christmas is just around the corner, and Rainbow’s End is a good place to choose-and-cut.
The on-farm store also features items crocheted by Taryn’s sister Justine using alpaca wool. She cleans the fleece after the alpacas are sheared in late spring, then sends the fiber out for processing. “The alpaca business was very good for the first five years,” Taryn noted. “We sold breeding stock and fleeces. Then the animal price went down, and sales of the babies tapered off.”
The on-farm store, open year round, also offers red raspberries, blueberries, pumpkins, winter squash, apples, garlic and sweet corn, all grown on the farm by Jon Muilenburg’s wife Elaine. “My parents believe in ‘do-it-yourself.’ They keep very busy,” commented Taryn, who has a full-time job herself.
During the growing season, Elaine attends farmers markets twice a week in Greenville and once a month in Belding to supplement sales of their produce at their on-farm store. “When it’s not choose-and-cut season, we normally ask that customers call before stopping in at the store.”
One reason Rainbow’s End Farm can offer such a variety of species of Christmas trees is the legacy left behind by a long ago receding glacier in varying soil types and topography. The farm has sandy soil as well as clay, and sloping land as well as level. At present, concolor firs are on the slope and Frasers are on the level area that has the best soil. “We had bought an extra 20 acres of clay soil that did not drain well. The trees we planted there had phytophthora problems. We had to replant with a less-susceptible species.”
The biggest problem the Muilenburgs face with their evergreens at Rainbow’s End is browsing deer, and that problem will continue, unless they put a fence around the entire acreage of evergreens. “The deer particularly like the Fraser firs.” The DNR gives only a few kill permits for hunters.
“Our second biggest problem is cold damage, if we have a warm March followed by a cold snap while the new shoots are still tender,” explained Taryn. Growing a mix of varieties seems to lessen disease and insect pressures. “Our biggest disease problem is needle cast,” stated Jon. “We plant the trees farther apart to allow for more air movement, and spray fungicides. Scale is our most troublesome insect pest.”
The Muilenbergs plant new trees every year, with Elaine on the transplanter following Jon on the tractor.