by Gail March Yerke
As autumn comes to a close most greenhouses and garden centers find themselves scrambling to gear up for the Christmas season. Does your holiday product mix include fresh-cut trees and wreaths? Have you ever considered setting up a seasonal tree lot to add to your year’s bottom line? With more than 1,500 Christmas tree farms across the country, the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA) reports 25 – 30 million real Christmas trees sold in the U.S. every year. An important part of holiday sales for many retailers, those numbers don’t even reflect the typical add-on purchases of fresh evergreen garlands/roping and wreaths.
From the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia to the Pacific Northwest, there are over 350,000 acres of Christmas trees in production today. The NCTA lists top producing states as Oregon, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Washington. Country Folks Grower spoke with some of these growers and learned about their operations, along with tips for retailers on selecting, displaying and selling fresh Christmas trees. If you aren’t already offering these fresh seasonal items to your customers they are something that can set you apart from other retailers in your area this holiday season.
Located in central Wisconsin, the Hanauer family has been growing trees for over 50 years. Started by Veronica and Dan Hanauer Sr. back in 1966, Hanauer’s Tree Farms is now owned and operated by Julie and Dan Hanauer Jr. The award-winning farm in Shawano has had their trees in the Wisconsin governor’s mansion as well as the White House. The family donates trees every year to the Trees for Troops program.
According to Hanauer, the farm grows and ships over 25,000 trees each holiday season to 30 states, from Florida to the West Coast, Canada and Alaska. “Our number one seller is the Fraser fir with the six- to eight-foot height the most popular size,” he said. The farm also produces Canaan and balsam fir, Colorado blue spruce and white pine. Hanauer explained, “Most customers want their trees by Thanksgiving weekend with some adding a second shipment later.”
For those considering adding fresh cut trees to their season, he had a few suggestions. When it comes to starting out, be conservative in ordering the first year. Hanauer said he would rather have a customer wish he had ordered a few more trees and sell out than have ordered too many to begin with. While about 70% of sales will be the six- to eight-foot size, a variety of sizes is important. He added that it’s also important to have some smaller three- to four-foot trees as well. “Most retailers are surprised to find that the taller and more expensive trees sell first. Local businesses that order the taller trees want them set up by the end of November,” he said. Finally, he advised to not “race to the bottom” to compete with big box stores on price; instead, offer selection, quality and service.
Reed Island Tree Farm is nestled in the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains of southwest Virginia. Receiving the Virginia State Champion Tree Grower Award three times in the last decade, Betty Vornbrock and Billy Cornette have farmed the land for over 20 years. Focusing on eco-friendly growing methods, the couple uses beneficial insects in place of the more common practice of applying insecticides. Their starter plants are grown from seed harvested from the Virginia Fraser fir forests on Mount Rogers. The farm adds about 3,000 trees to their operation every year.
“Fraser fir is our main crop and we also grow Canaan fir,” said Cornette. When setting up a tree lot, he advised, “Display is everything. If you bring in 100 trees, try to always have at least 50 displayed.” He added that to retain moisture the extra trees should be kept in the shade or at least under a tarp until they are moved into the sales area. He also suggested offering various heights of trees, including the “children’s tree,” a four-foot size popular for children’s rooms as well as taller trees.
Besides wholesale sales, Reed Island Tree Farm retails trees and evergreen wreaths from their farm. They indicated that retail sales are strongest on Thanksgiving weekend and the first two weekends in December. Customers can shop from their traditional pre-cut sales lot or go for the popular choose-and-cut option for their tree. The farm also offers decorated evergreen wreaths and greenery. “We’re in a great business, always dealing with happy people this time of year,” said Cornette.
It seems families are attracted to the Virginia farm for the total holiday experience. Visitors enjoy hot chocolate and hot apple cider along with Vornbrock’s scones and breads from the bakery. Homemade jams and jelly from fruit grown on the farm is a favorite as well. Their gift shop displays unique items from local artisans including folk art, ornaments and glass art. In short, they have created their own successful holiday version of agritourism.
Whether your business already includes real Christmas trees as part of your holiday offerings or is considering adding them, take advantage of these tree growers’ expert advice. For more information, check with your state Christmas tree organization or the NCTA website at www.realchristmastrees.org .