Big business in Wisconsin? Try Christmas trees
BARABOO, Wis. — Out here they are Christmas trees.
And this is how Jim Dohner makes his livelihood.
He began planting trees in rural Sauk County in the late 1980s and has been selling his Fraser and white pines since 1997 away from the politics that play out 49.6 miles to the southwest at the state Capitol. That’s where there has been debate recently about what to call the decorated tree that towers under the granite dome.
Dohner’s customers come looking not for holiday trees but Christmas trees for their family rooms, the small corners of apartments and even outdoor decks. They debate, but it’s about the height, shape and whether or not there will be enough clearance for piles of presents.
“It may take only five minutes when it’s really cold out, otherwise it can be 25 minutes or so,” Dohner said of the families who come to his Christmas Treeland just north of Baraboo. “Everyone wants their own style.”
Christmas trees are big business in Wisconsin, which ranks fifth nationally in sales, number of trees cut and acres of trees, according to the Wisconsin Christmas Tree Producers Association. In 2017, the most recent year from which data is available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the state was home to 859 Christmas tree farms that cut 700,341 trees, the Wisconsin State Journal reported. In 2012, the state had nine more farms but cut about 89,000 fewer trees. The number of acres of Christmas trees remained about the same, according to the data.
Jackson County led the way in 2017 with 165,523 trees cut, followed by Waushara County (93,243), Lincoln County (65,647) and Shawano County (36,606). Iron, Milwaukee, Menominee and Vilas were the only counties without a tree farm. Some farms only sell trees to retailers and lots and shipped primarily east of the Rockies, with some farms setting up their own retail lots in states such as Florida, Louisiana and Texas. Other tree farms are a combination of cut your own and wholesale, while some skip the wholesale and focus on the experience with horse-drawn wagons, music, gift shops and food.
“I think we’re doing really well,” said Cheryl Nicholson, executive secretary of the Wisconsin Christmas Tree Producers Association in Portage. “Wholesalers are sold out, the Christmas tree supply is getting filled, and we don’t have extra trees laying around. There’s enough buyers that all the trees are sold.”
But this is farming, so weather is a constant concern. Drought can decimate young trees, while too much rain can lead to root rot. Other issues include finding adequate and reliable labor and, increasingly, finding family members or others to take over tree operations when owners retire.
Nicholson’s parents, Robert and Virginia Mountford, got out of the business in 2018 after running their farm near Poynette since 1957.
“It was kind of a sad thing and kind of an end of an era,” Nicholson said of her parents’ decision that is being replicated across the state. “You have families that have done it for a long time, and you have people that can’t continue it, and the farm just stops. You do it because you love it so much. It’s like dairy farming.”
Minus grueling milking schedules, plummeting prices and rampant bankruptcies.
Dane County is a hotbed for tree farms due to its large population base that is surrounded by rural areas. In 2017, the 41 farms in the county harvested nearly 20,000 trees. They included Summers Christmas Tree Farm just off Airport Road between Middleton and Cross Plains, Hann’s near Oregon, Jensen’s just north of University Ridge Golf Course, Sunset Acres near Stoughton and Paoli Tree Farm that was established in 1988.
Alan Motl was working in construction in 2002 when he bought 120 acres near the Maunesha River northwest of Marshall. About 15 acres of his Riverside Christmas Trees are now covered in Fraser firs up to 16 feet tall and Canaan firs up to 11 feet tall. The farm also has white pines, but they won’t be ready for harvest for a few more years. Motl, 60, also sells wreaths, swags and kissing balls. He has given up his construction gig to focus on the tree farm, which is a full-time endeavor from March through December.
“There’s a lot to be done,” Motl said of trimming and caring for trees and maintaining the property. “Within an hour radius two or three have closed down, which means people are looking for other places to go. It gives us more business, but you’re not seeing a lot of people getting into it. My kids don’t have an interest. When I decide in another five years to retire I’ll probably close up.”
Back at Christmas Treeland on Terrytown Road just north of the Baraboo River, Dohner and his wife of 47 years, Suzanne, had 90 acres when they bought the place, but the state over the years has lopped off about 25 acres for road work, including the Highway 12 bypass. The farm also got off to a slow start when the first two years of plantings were wiped out by drought. But it now sports more than 15,000 trees over 12 acres, some of which were shipped off recently to be sold at convenience store lots in Rock Springs and Merrimac.
The new bypass now provides a prime view of some of the Dohners’ Christmas trees. Their operation, which opened Saturday because Thanksgiving falls later on this year’s calendar, also sells fresh, handmade wreaths, offers up free cups of apple cider and even has a freezer stuffed with hamburger made from the herd of grass-fed black diamond Angus that graze nearby.
More importantly, the Dohners also have an exit plan that doesn’t involve closing up shop. Their daughter, Jennifer Dohner Albrecht, and her husband plan to take over the business when the Dohners retire. Jim Dohner, 68, who retired a year ago as a financial planner, said the Christmas tree business is somewhat protected from the ups and downs of the marketplace and offers something that is more insulated from internet sales than most retail items.
“Amazon can’t affect us much,” Dohner said. “We just want to continue to support the happiness of the individuals that come out here to get a tree because it’s part of their Christmas.”