Wisconsin’s roughly 400 licensed Christmas tree growers seeing strong sales.
Therese Olson silently surveyed the scene before her as dozens of people examined hundreds of Christmas trees at Lowes Creek Tree Farm, searching for just the right one to take back home.
Shortly before 5 p.m. Friday, as day transitioned to night on this property south of Eau Claire, she scanned the crowd, then turned and walked briskly toward a young couple seemingly trying to pick between several trees.
Therese chatted amicably with the couple, asking them about the space where their tree would go, whether it would better accommodate a wide tree or a thinner one. She described the different characteristics between two tree varieties. Then the group discussed a snowfall the previous night, how the white covering the ground made it feel like Christmas.
The couple chose a tree, then headed into a cabin decked out in Christmas decorations to pay for it.
“After all these years, that’s a part of this I really enjoy, working with the customers,” Therese said, shortly after assisting another couple . “You have these nice interactions with people. Sometimes you learn a bit about them, their holiday traditions. And you feel like you’re helping them.”
The Olsons are among about 400 licensed Christmas tree growers in Wisconsin, said Randy Romanski, secretary of the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. Wisconsin produces the fourth-most Christmas trees among US states, he said, and sells them nationally and in Canada.
During a visit to the Olsons’ farm Friday, Romanski noted that while many businesses have suffered supply chain disruptions during the coronavirus pandemic, the Christmas tree industry is thriving despite those concerns because its product is planted so far ahead of time. For example, many trees sold this holiday season were planted 10 or more years ago.
The Olsons have been helping people get Christmas trees for 30 years. They purchased their property in 1981 and began selling Christmas trees there a decade later. Their business soon became known for its tree quality and variety, and it has become one of the more popular Christmas tree farms in the region.
Many customers purchase freshly cut trees, while others cut their own. Tom and Lynn Swanke and their two young daughters looked at dozens of trees during a recent visit to the farm before choosing a Fraser fir to put up in their home. The couple, who live in eastern Eau Claire County, said they hadn’t previously purchased a tree at Lowes Creek but plan to return.
“Their trees are beautiful, just beautiful,” Lynn Swanke said. “And with this setting and the cabin, it’s a really nice place to come to.”
Demand for Trees Strong
When they bought their land, the Olsons didn’t initially plan to grow Christmas trees. Instead, they thought they might raise strawberries, blueberries, or other crops. But the more they studied the viability of growing different products, the more they decided Christmas trees would be their best option.
“As we looked into it, we realized that Christmas trees might make the most sense for us,” Therese said. “There was really no blueprint for us to follow. We just did what we could to make it work.”
Sales of natural trees appear to be strong in Wisconsin this season, Romanski said, in part because more people are looking to shop locally and support local businesses. In addition, he said, shopping for trees is an outdoor activity, making it less risky in terms of people contracting COVID-19.
“You can be outdoors at a beautiful tree farm like this,” Romanski said, gesturing to his surroundings. “You can be in a setting like this and still feel safe. People are looking for that right now.”
The Olsons said their trees are in demand this year too. They said they are seeing more customers from across the region seeking naturally grown trees, and more people buying them because they’re deemed to be more environmentally friendly than their artificial counterparts.
“The weekend after Thanksgiving was very busy, the busiest we’ve had,” Therese said Friday evening as dozens of shoppers perused Christmas tree varieties. “And it has remained that way.”
With the onset of COVID-19 last year, the Olsons enacted pandemic-related restrictions to prevent virus spread and keep customers and employees safe. They shut down their cut-your-own-tree operation because that entailed transporting people in buses. They required that face masks be worn, even outdoors.
“We felt that was the responsible thing to do, because we have hundreds of people here at a time,” Therese said.
This year, with more known about the virus, the Olsons have lifted some restrictions and reinstated the cut-your-own option, although they still require that masks be worn indoors. Supply chain problems delayed the deliveries of a tractor and trailer they ordered, they said.
In addition to growing Christmas trees, the Olsons also operate a nursery and landscaping business at their property. The summertime part of their business has done well, Therese said, as more people have stayed home during the pandemic and invested in their outdoor living spaces. However, she said finding enough workers for the operation’s seasonal jobs has proven challenging— a difficulty faced by many businesses.
The couple said they’re thankful they have enough employees so far for their Christmas tree-selling operation.
“We’ve been really lucky with the employees we’ve had,” Therese said.
A Christmas Tradition
As they reflected on their 40 years growing and selling Christmas trees, the Olsons recalled the many varieties they have grown, and how customer preferences have changed over time.
“Scotch pine used to be ‘the tree’,” Tim said. “Now we don’t even grow them anymore.”
Instead, fir trees–most notably Fraser fir, balsam fir, and Canaan fir–are the most popular choices today, the couple said, although some older people still prefer white pines that were more common when they were young.
Getting just the right-shaped tree takes years of careful pruning, the Olsons said. The couple closely studies different Christmas tree varieties, keeping abreast of new options to try.
“We just like to grow things,” Therese said. “We’ve always enjoyed being outside in the fresh air, doing our work.”
They also enjoy raising just the right trees, the seemingly perfect objects for helping make more holiday memories for their customers. As Friday night got later, the tree farm remained busy with customers seeking just the right tree. Therese again left the cabin and walked amid the crowd, seeing if they needed help.
“It’s nice to see people, to see some of the same customers year after year,” Therese said moments after assisting another customer. “And then when you do it this long, you get to meet the next generation. Getting their tree at this place has become a tradition for many people, and we’re happy to be able to provide them with that.”