Growing Christmas trees is a year-round task
ESCANABA — Naturally, December is one of the busiest times of year for Christmas tree growers, but work on the grounds occur year-round for two local farms that offer both pre-cut and cut-your-own options to customers. While selling trees to families who decorate and put presents under them are only part of the business, Matthew Willette said that it’s a priority.
“Retail definitely comes first,” said Willette, who works full-time year-round at Teal’s Tree Farms in Bark River. “I think that people might only think about us one time a year, but if we weren’t here that one time a year, there’d be an angry mob with pitchforks over here.”
To be able to provide for local residents in December, growers have to perform maintenance and upkeep. In warmer months, this includes mowing grass, checking for pests, and otherwise ensuring the health of the trees.
Willette pointed out that while other crops return yields year after year, a Christmas tree is only harvested after about a decade of growth — give or take, since different species grow at different rates. Because of the one-and-done nature of a tree sale, investments, resources, and care for the crops must find a balance. One specific consideration he cited was the fact that the past few summers have been dry; however, mass irrigation is not realistic with current tree prices.
Owner and operator Joseph Teal said that the largest portion of his business actually entails remanufacturing and selling boughs that are purchased from locals before Thanksgiving.
“We have a drive-on scale here,” said Teal. “We buy from the public. They go out and cut brush — all different types of varieties, ya know, from balsam and pines and — we pay ’em by the the pound. And then we take that, and we remanufacture that into certain size bales that the florists use. … We’re loading almost two semis a day and getting that stuff out to the city.”
That portion of Teal’s operation takes place in the fall, before the business shifts gears. Prior to Thanksgiving, they’re in the bough business; beginning on Black Friday, the tree lot and retail store opens.
At Treichel’s Trees — located between Carney and Powers — Eric and Kitty Treichel begin selling to the public on Nov. 1. Throughout the year, though, the couple spends most days working on their 280-acre farm.
“Because it’s just the two of us, we’re trimming all year long,” said Eric. “June’s about the only month we don’t trim, because that’s when the new growth is coming out. There’s a lot of work involved with it, you know — thinning and pruning and culling and cleaning up the mess in the wintertime. Kind of a year-long job.”
At present, there are about 50,000 Christmas trees in various stages and of a variety of species on the Treichels’ farm. Eric trims the tops of the trees, which he said is the most important part — “You’re setting it up for next year’s growth,” he said — while Kitty shapes the branches. Now, she uses a rotary trimmer, but that wasn’t always the case.
“I used to use two machetes,” said Kitty, gleefully remembering. “Boy, was I buff! Oh, man, I weighed 128 pounds of muscle.”
“Yeah, she could do a machete in each hand,” Eric corroborated. Apparently, dual-wielding Kitty did a good job on the trees, but the blades “found her knees many times,” Eric said.
Kitty reported being upset when her husband first took the machetes away after a particularly nasty injury, but she conceded that it was the right call. Now that both she and Eric are in their seventies, Kitty said, “My shoulders are not very good after all these years of trimming. So the rotary trimmer’s probably best.”
A few weeks before Christmas each year, the couple makes time for what Eric described as the highlight of their year.
The Treichels invite the youngest children from neighboring schools to pick out Christmas trees for their classrooms. Each class is sent out into the seven-acre yard and told to stand around a tree of their choosing. When the majority of a group convinces their classmates to agree upon one, Eric cuts it down, and the children work together to pull it over to the baler, where it is wrapped and loaded onto the school bus.
“We are very thankful,” said Andrea Chaney, kindergarten teacher at Carney-Nadeau Public School. “We love them. ‘Miss Kitty and Mr. Eric’ is what (the kids) call them. They invite us every year, and then they invite us back in the spring to plant trees to replace the ones that we cut.”
The “get a tree, give a tree” lesson is one the teachers and the Treichels believe is important for the children to experience first-hand. Kitty said that some kids need to be encouraged to get in the dirt.
“I’ll say, ‘This tree is giving you oxygen. It’s helping you to live. You want to put that in the ground so you can always breathe,’ and then they start thinking about that.
“Of course, we’ve been planting here in the yard forever, you know, and one of the teachers said, ‘You know, we’ve been coming here year after year and we don’t see that (growth)–“ Kitty chuckled.
“They’re putting them in crooked; they’re not covering them,” Eric said with a smile.
The fields elsewhere on their property receive more diligent, proper planting by the experienced farmers.
Planting opportunities this past season came late, towards the end of April, tree growers reported. But certain tasks between the Christmas harvest and spring planting are essential, too.
“It generally starts with when the snow melts,” said Willette. “We get out there and we do all of our field cleanup. If you got a lot of snowfall leftover, you’ll find stumps out there two or three feet tall, you know, from a lot of people going out and cutting trees.”
They’ll cut the stumps, which generally rot out after a few years, as low to the ground as possible. The next row of trees will be planted beside them.
Willette described the process of using a three-point planter on a tractor at Teal’s:
“It’s got a disc — a cutting disc — on the front that cuts the ground open, and a big heavy duty V-shaped plow that drags through the ground to peel the ground open. And then there’s a gap in that V; you take your tree — your seedling … and you put it down in that opening on the ground. Then underneath your butt sits two tires … for sealing the ground back up. So, you know, between your legs, you put it in the ground and then as you ride over it, it seals up behind you.”
Teal said that they plant about 10,000 seedlings per year. He’s already ordered the ones that will be going in the ground next.
For the next few weeks, though, area Christmas tree farmers can expect to be kept busy with people preparing for the holiday. Teal said he would prefer to be done by the 22nd — but doesn’t expect that will be the case.
Teal said there are usually still a few stragglers buying trees on Christmas Eve.
“Somebody pulled in Christmas Day about 4:00 two years ago and come knocking on the door,” Willette reported.
At Treichel’s, Eric said, “This is more or less our life. We just love doing it. I mean, there’s always — you never get finished, and it’s just — by the time you think you’re finished, then it’s time to start all over again. The trimming and so forth. The planting. But it keeps us busy, it keeps us moving.”