The final week before Christmas is make-or-break time for Christmas tree farms still trying to move live trees. And this holiday season, it’s even harder for these businesses to stay afloat.
First, there’s the recession. And storms and freezing weather are keeping people away. Then there’s the battle between fresh and artificial trees. According to the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA), 28 million fresh trees were sold in 2009, more than double the 12 million artificial trees purchased, but well below the 37 million live trees sold in 1991.
“We don’t allow people to use the ‘F’ word at our farm,” says Dave VanderVelden, owner of Whispering Pines Tree Farm in Ocanto, Wisconsin. “The word ‘fake,’ that is.” Located 30 minutes north of Green Bay, Whispering Pines reports a 25 percent increase this year in cut-your-own tree farm sales, and a 10 percent increase at its Green Bay retail lot.
Here’s why this Christmas tree farm is blossoming, according to VanderVelden:
- It offers an “experience” — People don’t just come to get their trees and go. Whispering Pines offers horse-drawn wagon rides, a children’s train, free hot chocolate and popcorn, a holiday gift shop, and a photographer on site to take photos of the kids with Santa Claus. “If it was just about the tree, the extras wouldn’t matter.”
- It caters to repeat customers — VanderVelden has second-and third-generation customers. He tries to remember everyone’s name, and takes special care of the children who pick out the family tree, so that they’ll remember him and bring their own children back when the time comes.
- It offers a selection — Whispering Pines offers cut-your-own trees, as well as already-cut trees at a retail lot for people who want to grab and go closer to home. VanderVelden also grows “family favorites,” the Christmas trees that are most popular with customers, such as Douglas and balsam firs, as well as a smaller selection of “exotics,” like white pines and Canaan firs.
- It promotes its eco-friendly practices. Whispering Pines does all it can to play up how much better it is to cut down a live tree than buy a fake one. Staff explain to customers that living trees generate oxygen, provide habitat for birds and animals, and help preserve farmland and green space from being turned into housing development. “The real tree is coming back, because parents want to give their kids the experience they had,” says VanderVelden. “It’s a family tradition to come out to the farm and pick out the tree.”
Whispering Pines is almost closed for the season. Excess trees will be turned into wood chips, which isn’t as profitable as selling them whole. Also, because trees grow about one foot a year, it can take years of planting and pruning before a tree farm owner sees a return on new ones. “Growing Christmas trees is not really a money-maker,” says VanderVelden. “But I try to have fun with it, and seeing the kids have fun with it too makes it worthwhile.”