When it comes to facts about Christmas trees, you definitely don’t want to listen to Charlie Brown’s friend, Lucy.
In the children’s classic “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” Lucy “teaches” her little brother Linus all about trees. She points to an evergreen and tells him it’s a “fur tree.” She explains that it not only produces fur for coats; you can also get wool from it during winter.
Fortunately for Christmas tree growers, the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA), along with state associations, work year-round to promote the industry and share the facts about real trees.
While Lucy had it completely wrong, the general public doesn’t always get it right either. They don’t always recognize Christmas trees as the sustainable agriculture crop they are, with two to three seedlings planted for each mature tree that is harvested each year. These associations work with growers and network with multiple media platforms to promote real trees.
Michigan Christmas Trees
With almost three million acres of Christmas trees in production across the country, Michigan is ranked third in the USDA’s most recent Ag Census. Tony Stefani is president of the Michigan Christmas Tree Association (MCTA) and also represents one of that state’s three grower districts. He and his father, Richard, own and operate Hillside Christmas Tree Farm in Manchester Township. The farm offers U-cut trees as well as pre-cut options.
As Michigan growers, the Stefani family has seen gradual changes in the market over the years. “At one time my dad only grew Scotch pine. That was a big tree during the ‘80s, along with Douglas fir,” Tony said.
Today, growers offer Fraser fir, Concolor fir, Colorado blue spruce and Canaan fir, along with Douglas fir and Scotch pine. A newer species gaining popularity is Korean fir. With a field grow-time similar to Fraser, it offers the two-tone coloring of light green and a silver underside.
The majority of MCTA members operate U-cut farms, with wholesale and retail lot growers represented at just under 20% each. The association’s web locater draws 20,000 visitors each year, promoting all three groups with individual directory listings and location mapping. An education page offers holiday tips for the general public on Christmas tree selection, care, recycling and a segment that debunks Christmas tree myths.
Brown’s Tree Farm
Located in the northern Lower Peninsula, Lake City is known as the “Christmas Tree Capital of Michigan.” That’s where you’ll find the Brown family’s operation. With traditional farm beginnings in the 1920s, the family transitioned to Christmas trees and wreath production about 45 years ago.
Wes Brown and his father, Earl, take care of the mowing, fertilization and irrigation, but contract out summer pruning. Wes said that with the lack of early rainfall, their drip irrigation system ran 24/7 the better part of early summer 2023. However, that’s where their similarity to other Christmas tree farms ends. It’s how they distribute their product that’s unique.
Third generation grower Wes Brown has taken their agribusiness in another direction with the development of ATreeToYourDoor.com. Besides working at the family’s tree farm, Wes owns a computer and web design service. He thought, “Why not try selling trees individually online?” At the time, they were selling trees at retail lots as well as wholesale to the Chicago and Indianapolis area markets.
“It was kind of a good fit,” he said. “My dad did the wholesale and I did the tree lots and A Tree to Your Door the whole time.”
They soon found they were doing more and more online sales each year. “It got to where I was selling more online than I had in my retail lots,” he said.
Since Earl’s retirement four years ago, Brown’s Tree Farm exclusively caters to online consumers that want a tree or wreath shipped directly to them.
How It’s Done
Wes said one of the benefits of their online business model is that there is no waste. Unlike farms that estimate potential sales and begin harvesting in late autumn, online orders aren’t field cut until just before shipping. Trees are first individually tagged and recorded by field, height and species, allowing for precise inventory control.
Once ordered, shipping is calculated and added based on the size of the tree and its destination. Trees can be shipped anywhere in the U.S. that is serviced by UPS or FedEx. Wes said they receive more orders from California than any other state.
The Browns grow Fraser fir, balsam fir and white pine, with the six- to eight-foot Fraser fir being their strongest seller. The website offers myriad colorful photos of different tree varieties and wreath designs. Their Fraser fir wreaths are available natural or decorated.
Pine Valley Christmas Trees
Another variation of the traditional U-cut Christmas tree farm, the Underwood family’s Pine Valley Christmas Trees has taken their operation to the next level. Joncie Underwood explained that while their family farm has been there since the early 1800s, it wasn’t until the late 1950s they began growing trees. That was when her older brother, Mike, first planted trees as a 4-H project.
“My father fell in love with growing trees,” she said. “Dad started growing trees as a hobby in 1957. In the beginning, he went down the main street of town selling trees from the back of a pickup truck for $5.”
Today, when guests arrive at their Elkton, MD, farm after Thanksgiving, a tree has not only already been cut and baled for them, it’s the exact tree they selected earlier that autumn. If they prefer, their previously selected tree is left in the field for the family to cut down themselves.
Beginning in early November, the public is invited into their fields to tag their favorite tree. Until the day before Thanksgiving, families can select their tree to be picked up later in time for Christmas. This does require a great deal of effort on the part of the grower. The farm is open seven days a week and sells as many as 2,500 tagged trees in a season.
Tracking the Tree Inventory
In autumn, each field is mapped. Available trees are recorded by variety and height and entered into a database. A two-part tagging system is attached to each tree so that customers can bring the bottom portion back from the field. That becomes their claim ticket. The customer’s information, including a preferred pick-up date, is then linked to the tree in their system. Later, daily printouts will indicate which trees need to be cut.
Customers have the advantage of selecting their tree earlier this way. “By the time you hit December, you’ve got people going to Christmas parties, they’re shopping and are just really pressed for time,” Joncie said. “This allows the whole family to come out as a unit, have that experience and not feel rushed. They know that their tree is there for them when they are ready to come back and get it.”
Most prefer their tree wrapped and ready to go; others still want the experience of felling it themselves. For those who prefer the latter, a staff member accompanies them into the field to help locate their tree.
(Editor’s note: The Maryland Christmas Tree Association offers information at marylandchristmastrees.org.)
Whether your business is a traditional U-cut operation or something as unique as these tree farms, the holidays bring people together. Families will not only look for the perfect tree, they will be making memories with your product this Christmas season.
As always, your associations will be there to help promote the industry. And they do a much better job of it than Charlie Brown’s friend Lucy.
by Gail March Yerke