The father and son team of Richard and Tony Stefani at Hillside Christmas Tree Farm in Manchester, MI.
Photo courtesy of Hillside Christmas Tree Farm

by Enrico Villamaino

East Coast or West Coast? Which is best? And how do we even judge?

Gridiron fans can point out that Tom Brady brought the New England Patriots six Super Bowl rings, two more than Joe Montana delivered for the San Francisco 49ers. Baseball proponents will note that California stole away both Brooklyn’s beloved Dodgers and the Giants from the Polo Grounds – perks for the West Coast.

What about Christmas trees? Oregon and North Carolina are the number one and two producers of Christmas trees in the U.S., respectively.

When asked where one can find the very best Christmas trees, Amy Start breaks free from the coastal dichotomy, declaring, “Michigan!”

Start is the executive director of the Michigan Christmas Tree Association (MCTA). The organization has a membership of over 150 Christmas tree growers including both small retailers and large wholesalers.

Start said that while the Wolverine State is number three in national Christmas tree production, their coniferous crop is second to none. “We actually grow more species of Christmas tree here than in any other state,” she boasted. Michigan features 12 hybrid species compared to the half dozen breeds raised in Oregon. North Carolina produces an impressive 4 million Christmas trees annually, but over 99% of those come from the single Fraser fir species. The MCTA website features a “Tree Personality Quiz” that visitors can take to determine whether their soulmate is a Scotch pine or a spruce.

Michigan’s annual output is just over 3 million trees each year, and Start emphasized that they’re the best a consumer could want. “Michigan trees are hardy trees. Some areas of the country have been more negatively affected by climate change, but here we continue to have really good climate for growing resilient trees, especially in the western and northern parts of the state,” she said. “We also benefit from having a steady amount of rain. Irrigation is not as much of an issue as it is elsewhere. All of this results in Michigan producing a more lush product. And for every tree harvested, between two and three new [seedlings] are planted, so we’ll be able to keep up with demand for years to come.”

There are over 450 growers in Michigan. Some, like Rex and Jessica Korson of Korson’s Tree Farms in Sidney, are exclusively wholesale operations. “Business has been steady for us for the past five years, and we see the potential for growth,” said Rex. A large operation, Korson’s operates on over 1,000 acres and ships in excess of 40,000 trees each year to retailers across the Midwest. Jessica added, “We also produce 27,000 wreaths every Christmas.”

Rex agrees with Start that Michigan is ideal for this business. “We have weather conditions that are good for multiple species. Pines and spruce trees were popular in the past, but lately the market has shifted more toward firs lately, and we grow those too.” Rex said he’s anticipating strong sales in the coming season. “Despite it not being a great year in a lot of ways, the fact that many people are staying at home and not traveling for the holidays is resulting in there being more celebrations, just spread out and in smaller groups. We’ll actually see more trees sold because of that.”

Start explained that many of the 20 largest wholesalers in the state have already filled their year’s orders due to the increase in individuals needing trees for at home celebrations as well as a tightening of the market. “The 2008 recession resulted in a few years of more modest plantings,” she said. “We’re seeing the results of that now.”

Smaller operations, like Hillside Christmas Tree Farm in Manchester, are also looking forward to a successful season. Tony Stefani runs Hillside with his father, Richard. A small family operation, Hillside is a 100% U-cut retail tree farm. Tony said he sells about 400 trees per year, “mostly to people in the metro Detroit area, about an hour’s drive away.”

Tony suspects the current pandemic shutdown might prove beneficial to his sales as well. “In addition to more people staying home and wanting more trees, people are anxious to get out and are looking for a way to escape cabin fever,” he said. “When they come here, they make a day of it. They get to be outdoors and breathe some fresh air.”

Tony has had to make some adjustments. “We sanitize all our saws after every use, and unfortunately we had to cancel our wagon rides this year.”

Given the abundance of evergreens that the Michigan tree market renders, many are hard pressed to recommend a “best” or “favorite” tree. But each extends a bit of friendly advice.

“The Fraser fir is a great tree,” proffered Rex.

According to Tony, “The balsam firs are very popular.”

Start draws attention to an often overlooked option. “People should give the Concolor a second look. It has a nice blue-green color, and it smells like citrus.”

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