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Real Christmas trees are the feel-good story of the holiday season

November 25, 2018

Sales of sparkly and realistic-looking artificial Christmas trees showcased in the front of many stores throughout the country are expected to start climbing again with the start of a new holiday season, but the time-honored tradition of buying and decorating real trees remains strong — especially in Wisconsin, industry insiders say.

“Where have the feel-good places of Christmas gone? I think you can still find them in the real Christmas tree industry,” says Greg Hann, the owner of Hann’s Christmas Farm located on Tipperary Road in the town of Oregon.

“I mean, people walk onto my farm with their kids and they say, ‘This feels like the start of Christmas.’ Go to Menard’s and you see all those plastic trees and you don’t get the same feeling.”

The real-Christmas-tree industry in Wisconsin is as healthy as a just-cut 7-foot fir tree partly because it has taken a cue from the artificial-tree industry sales approach that focuses on its strengths, Hann said.

Artificial-tree salespeople have been on a long, great roll by pushing the same message: Their plastic trees don’t look much different than a real tree yet they are maintenance-free and easy to set up and put away without the need to go outside into the wintery air.

In 2004, artificial trees accounted for 25 percent of all Christmas tree sales but the number has gone up nearly every year and reached 43.5 percent in 2017, according to data from the National Christmas Tree Association that was published by statista.com.

“We’ve been fighting the fake trees forever,” Hann said. “They have a good platform. (Google) Christmas trees and the fake-tree industry pops up. We knew we were doing a poor job compared to what they were doing.”

Hann and other real-tree producers have responded with sales pitches focusing on tradition, old-fashioned family values and a superstar tree called the Fraser fir. It’s the closest thing to the ease of an artificial tree because the trees don’t drop their needles quickly. They are also the easiest to decorate because they are so full and have heavy branches.

Fraser firs accounted for 44.6 percent of all trees sold in Wisconsin and 51 percent of the profits in 2014, according to the U.S. Census of Horticulture.

Another plus for real-tree buyers: For at least the third straight year, prices have gone up minimally or not at all at most places around the state, Hann said. “The average tree (about 7 feet) is going to be in the $55 to $65 range,” he said.

It has been a different story for artificial trees. The average price nationally jumped more than $10 to $107 in 2017, data from the National Christmas Tree Association show.

The change in marketing philosophy has helped reverse the long decline of overall real-Christmas-tree sales that reached nearly 17 percent nationally from 2002 to 2012, according to data from the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

It was worse in Wisconsin, where real-tree sales declined 61.9 percent — a drop of nearly 1 million trees to just over 600,000 — during that same period before they rebounded in 2014 to over 650,000, the data show.

Sales have continued to increase since 2014, said Doug Hundley, a spokesman for the National Christmas Tree Association. The industry is basing its claims on unofficial counts because NASS isn’t expected to produce new sales numbers until sometime in 2019, he said.

Millennials love real trees

Hann doesn’t need to see any figures to know the efforts made by the real-tree industry are paying dividends. He says the increased activity tells him all he needs to know.

“We’ve made it a whole lot easier to put a live tree in your house,” Hann said. “We’ve actually listened so we could make the experience more user friendly and enjoyable.”

That sales pitch for real trees has resonated with millennials and they deserve kudos for helping reverse the decline of real-tree sales, Hundley says.

He thinks millennials’ interest in buying real Christmas trees is a big reason Amazon has started selling them this year. “Millennials are the ones who are driving the organic food thing and the artisan thing and they want local foods, too. So it makes sense for them to want a real Christmas tree that they can buy locally,” he said.

In Wisconsin, a strong and robust crop of Christmas trees last year and this year that has included record numbers of the Fraser fir has led to more opportunities for sales, according to Cheryl Nicholson, executive director of the Wisconsin Christmas Tree Producers Association.

Besides supplying trees to chain stores, retail lots, nonprofit groups and nurseries/garden centers and opening their farms to consumers wanting to cut their own, Wisconsin producers also are helping to fill a void created by a shortage of Fraser firs in North Carolina and other parts of the country, Nicholson said.

“Our wholesale growers sold out last year early and they’re going to sell out this year,” she said.

Hundley agrees that artificial-tree sales have created the biggest problem for the real-Christmas-tree industry over the past 20-plus years. But he also believes that the continuing demand for Fraser firs and poor management of replacement trees after the harvest were additional factors in creating volatility in their industry since 2000.

“There was a big selloff of trees because of demand and fewer trees were planted to replace them and we’re still paying for that,” Hundley said. “Plus, we’ve had a lot of retirements over the past 15, 20 years because when you’re not making a profit anymore, you lose your passion for it.”

Producers who sell their trees on the wholesale market are just starting to make money again, Hundley said. “I can tell you at the wholesale level, we quit making money around 2000 and went a good 10 years before we started to recover,” he said.

Changing landscape

The tree and ownership landscape has certainly changed in Wisconsin since the turn of the century.

In 1998, when Fraser firs were just becoming popular around here, balsam firs and scotch pines accounted for more than 1 million of the 1.3 million Christmas trees sold in the state, according to data compiled from the National Agricultural Statistics Service. By 2014, there were more Fraser firs sold in the state (293,000) than the combined sales of balsam and scotch pine (276,000), the data show.

Meantime, the state Christmas tree producers association has seen membership drop to around 150 members this year after it reached well over 300 several years ago, said Hann, who is president of the association this year.

Big operations like The Paint Farm in Poynette shut down operations earlier this year. Bob Mountford, who produced and sold Christmas trees for 59 years, still lives on the farm with his wife and business partner, Donna Mountford, but they sold all of the trees that “were sellable” a few months ago and are keeping busy taking care of the rest of the land, said Donna Mountford. “We’re both 83 years old,” she said. “Nobody else wanted to take it over. It was time.”

A check of annual sales by operations required to get licenses from the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection last conducted in 2013 shows that 187 operations made between $250 and $5,000, and 107 made between $5,001 and $20,000.

Just 82 made between $20,001 and $100,000, while 17 made between $100,001 and $200,000 and 7 made between $200,001 and $500,000. None of the licensees made between $500,001 and $2 million and just one made more than $2 million. The DATCP data did not name the licensees in each sales class.

Hann said his business has always been profitable. His father started the business as a side job by planting seven acres. Hann took it over and expanded it to 57 acres and has 55,000 trees on his property. He also added a 1,500-square-foot retail store and entertainment such as wagon rides. He has more than 90 employees working for him during the holiday season.

It also continues to be a family affair. His wife, Therese, and 15-year-old daughter, Mara, are huge helps to the business, Hann said.

So as it turns out, the real-tree industry’s sales pitch that included tradition and old-fashioned family values is alive and well at least on some Dane County tree farms.

Nobody agrees more than Lance Jensen, the owner of Jensen Trees, located on Valley View Road in the town of Verona.

The business has been part of his family since it opened in 1966 and he and his siblings helped his parents run it. “For us it has really stayed the same, except we don’t use my grandfather’s cigar box (to hold the money) anymore. We actually have a cash register,” Jensen said.

What’s important is that his wife, Gayla, and his youngest son, Jacob, 18; daughter, Abby, 20; and his oldest son, Kyle, 31, and Kyle’s new wife, Christine, are all involved in the operation.

“My mom used to make wreaths and bake cookies for the kids. Now my wife does the same thing,” Jensen said. “It’s wonderful to be a part of what really is one of the beautiful traditions in this state — getting out in the winter and finding the perfect tree.”

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