By BARRY ADAMS
Wisconsin State Journal
BARABOO, Wis. (AP) — Alan Motl was working in construction in 2002 when he bought 120 acres near the Maunesha River northwest of Marshall and began running Riverside Christmas Trees.
About 15 acres of the property is now taken up by Fraser firs, standing as high as 16 feet, and Canaan firs, as high as 11 feet. 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 construction to devote his time to 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.”
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 for which the U.S. Department of Agriculture has data, 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 primarily east of the Rockies, whereas others set up their own retail lots in states such as Florida, Louisiana and Texas. Still others offer a combination of cut-your-own trees and wholesale operations, and yet another group will skip wholesale altogether and instead offer 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 kill off young trees, and too much rain can lead to root rot. Other concerns include the supply of adequate and reliable labor and, increasingly, of relatives or others who are willing take over tree operations when owners retire.
Nicholson’s parents, Robert and Virginia Mountford, got out of the business in 2018 after having run 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. “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.”
Dane County is a hotbed for tree farms because of its large population. 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, which was established in 1988.
At Christmas Treeland on Terrytown Road – just north of the Baraboo River – Jim Dohner and his wife of 47 years, Suzanne, originally had 90 acres. But the state over the year 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 on 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 call for 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.”