by Tamara Scully
Christmas isn’t just about Christmas trees. Mistletoe and boughs of holly, grave blankets, Christmas balls, topiary tree baskets and of course Christmas wreaths, are all essential greenery to celebrate the holiday season. These accessories to the holidays are found everywhere, from big box stores to supermarkets, and roadside Christmas tree sales lots to the local farm market. For Christmas tree growers, adding these extras to their business plan can be a natural fit.
Wholesale orders, whether for non-profit groups such as churches or scouting troops to resell as a fundraiser, or directly to local retail outlets, offer bulk sales opportunities. Direct retail sales can offer a higher profit margin, but require enough customer foot traffic to your farm stand to make it worthwhile. Either way, the materials can be high-cost, the amount of greenery required can be daunting, and the competition from low-cost plastic or mass-marketed wreaths intense.
“We go through a lot of trees,” to make the wreaths, grave blankets and topiary tree baskets for their on-farm Christmas Shop and to fulfill wholesale orders, said Christmas tree farmer Jim Mangine of Triple Creek Farm and Nursery.
Jim and his wife, Cheryl, opted to make wreaths and grave blankets as a way to “supplement the income from the trees with something complementary,” he said, noting that it takes years for the Christmas trees to be ready for sale.
When a used wreath-making machine became available from another nursery, the Mangines began making wreaths to offer to their Christmas tree customers. Cheryl, an artist specializing in faux and decorative painting, is a natural at making the bows and finalizing the design elements of wreaths and other greenery, adding an exclusive touch to their products.
Retail sales led to interest from local non-profit and religious groups seeking larger quantities for fund raising needs.
While the Mangines weren’t expecting to sell wholesale, they decided to give it a try.
As for finding the right price point: “we didn’t want to be expensive, and didn’t want to be donating all of our time,” Jim said. They began with the price the groups had been paying to their previous supplier, and modified that to balance the materials, time and labor needed to produce a top-quality product.
They create sample wreaths for potential customers for display, and allow the customers to modify by adding the final decorative touches to suit their taste and wallet.
You want to make sure that the customer knows what they are going to get,” Jim said.
Fresh greenery is the foundation for their success. The farm’s specialty is offering customers a “very full” wreath, complete with hand-tied bows, real berries from the farm and surrounding woods, specialty greens such as holly, boxwood or arborvitae for added interest, high-quality glass balls, and a strong wire loop for proper hanging.
“Having the trees is a big help,” Mangine said. Wholesale wreath orders “would not generate enough money if we had to buy materials.”
Instead, the cost of the greenery for the wreaths is built into the Christmas tree farm business. The trees used for the wreaths are first pulled from cull trees. Once the culls are utilized, Jim selects from trees that are least likely to be chosen as Christmas trees, due to height, odd shape, dry spots or other cosmetic inconsistencies. If needed, better trees are used.
Each tree generally produces enough greenery for about 25 wreaths. The farm’s wreaths offer their customers more greenery than is typical in most mass produced wreaths. Grave blankets require even more greenery. Fraser fir are the most desirable trees for wreaths.
The biggest challenge is balancing the trees needed to make wreaths and other greenery, plus the trees anticipated to be sold each season as Christmas trees. Because the farm initially planted an excess of trees, and replants each year, they have had more inventory than they need for each season.
“We’re at the point now that we’re trying to plant roughly what we go through,” each season, Jim said. “Trees harvested for the wreaths are 10 years old. It’s a balance. The learning curve is so long.”
The actual wholesale wreath-making season begins in early November, and ends at Thanksgiving. Cheryl is busy with the handmade bows beginning in August, so that she is free to do the remainder of the decorating as the wreaths are created. Just a few employees are hired for the short November season to help create and decorate the wreaths.
Further expansion of wholesale wreath sales at this time is not something they are actively pursuing. They are busy with wreaths until the choose-and-cut sales begin, and adding any more orders would require more employees.
Early November the grave blankets are made. Wreaths made in early to mid-November are sprayed with anti-desiccant to keep the greenery from drying out, while later wreaths don’t typically require this step. All greenery is kept outside, in the shade and out of the elements, to retain freshness.
Wholesale orders are fulfilled by Thanksgiving, when the family turns its attention to their choose-and-cut sales and stocking the Christmas Shop with handcrafted items many from local artists. Extra-special goodies, which make the trip to select a tree a joyful one for the farm’s customers, along with added activities and events on weekends, complete the farm’s experience.
Competing in such an intensive, short-season enterprise can be rewarding, but it has numerous challenges. For Christmas tree growers, finding your market for wreaths and other greenery one which balances the cost of materials and the time and labor required during the busy Christmas tree season, with the sales price and ultimate profit that can be generated can be quite challenging. And, as the Mangines have discovered, it can also fit well with a choose-and-cut operation.
Adding value to the Christmas tree farm
by Tamara Scully