Christmas-tree farmers: the other 11 months – Agri-View

OREGON, Wisconsin — “What do Christmas-tree farmers do after the holidays?”

It’s a question tree growers often hear. The answer is they do a lot more than people think.

At Hann’s Christmas Farm of rural Oregon, Wisconsin, the work begins the week after Christmas. January is the time to take inventory and pack up gift items and ornaments in the Hann’s Christmas Store. Owner Greg Hann also gathers all his paperwork together to do his taxes.

In February, the grower is scheduling his advertising for the following November and December. Making advertising decisions at the last minute can sometimes be a costly endeavor.

“I like having the time to talk about advertising and make informed decisions with a clear head,” Hann said.

In February and March, Hann does most of his own machinery repairs and sometimes even fabricates his own equipment, depending on the farm’s unique needs. He has added wings to a conventional Bush Hog® mower, for example. This allows him to maintain clean alleys between rows of trees, but also to leave enough grass immediately around the tree trucks.

Also in March, one can find the Oregon tree grower cleaning fence rows. This is a good time to take early control of weeds, especially now when more weed species across the country are becoming increasingly resistant to herbicides such as glyphosate.

“I’m trying to be proactive,” Hann said. “It’s not a good idea to use the same herbicide year after year.”

April is a busy month, caring for new seedlings. Given the vagaries of April weather, the grower must capitalize on the best times to apply herbicides and spray for pests like balsam twig aphids. As row-crop producers well know, spring application windows can be narrow. Hann keeps a close eye on growing-degree-day ranges that correspond with particular tree pests, critical to effectively controlling them.

In mid June, Hann begins top work — trimming trees to help create that perfect structure to hold an angel or star on the treetop. He repeats this in August. July is spent shaping and tapering trees for the best appearance possible.

Throughout the summer, Hann mows the alleys between the trees and applies herbicides as needed. Summer work also involves irrigating the stands of Fraser firs with a hose-reel irrigation system. Fraser fir, native to the Appalachians of the Southeastern United States, needs extra attention and plenty of water to do well in Wisconsin. But the extra management is worth the extra price that consumers are willing to pay for this popular Christmas-tree species.

September is spent gearing up for the sales season. Hann determines how many trees will be harvested for pre-cut sales and also paints white pine trees to prepare them for sale. Christmas-tree growers generally paint white pines green to be more aesthetically pleasing, because the needles of this species tend to have a less-appealing yellowish cast.

Hann also spends September attaching price tags to trees that will be available for sale. Not all growers do this, but Hann said this enables him to lower the price of less densely needled trees — at least less dense compared to their denser counterparts. This provides more price points to accommodate different customers.

The grower features gifts, ornaments and artwork in Hann’s Christmas Store. The store has become a place for shoppers to enjoy hot cider and freshly popped popcorn while browsing. Much of October is devoted to preparing the shop for the busy selling season.

After a hard freeze, Hann begins cutting boughs, which will be fashioned into wreaths by as many as 45 part-time employees working two or three shifts a week. Many of the same part-time employees return year after year to earn extra income for the holidays.

The farm produces about 4,000 wreaths each year, most of which are sold through Boy Scout troops and sports groups within a 50-mile radius of the farm. To keep the boughs fresh, they are watered and placed under shade cloths at the farm.

The months of work lead up to the busy selling season of about three weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“I earn about 85 percent of my income in just seven days,” Hann said. “After that, I need to understand how to best use the money over the rest of the year.”

With the retail shop and his farm planted to a few thousand Christmas trees, Hann has made his business a full-time job. But tree farming is not a job for everyone.

“This is a patient man’s industry,” Hann said.

He pointed out it takes from seven to 10 years before an average Christmas-tree crop is ready for market. He spent years building the business to the point where it is today. His parents, Al and Myra Hann, in 1968 started growing Christmas trees on 2 acres of land to earn supplementary income. They bought seven more acres in 1984, and then purchased another 40 acres of land adjacent to their previous parcel. These 40 acres came with a dairy barn, which enabled them to begin making wreaths that were sold through local Boy Scout troops. This part of the business continued to expand. The Hanns added the retail store in the barn in 1992, selling ornaments on consignment.

While in college in the late 1980s, Greg Hann would occasionally help trim trees during summers. He also would help on weekends during the brisk sales season. Partly as a quality-of-life decision, he eventually purchased the farm on a land contract from his parents in 2000.

At the time, the young producer knew he would need to reinvest in the farm to make it a full-time business, so he clear-cut many of the farm’s Scotch pines. He replanted the land to balsam and Fraser firs that would garner higher prices. He updated the farm’s equipment and leased an additional 10 acres from a neighbor, which was a 10-year lease with a three-year bonus. He also expanded the Christmas shop another 1,500 square feet.

Greg Hann’s wife, Therese, is a physical-education teacher. Her salary and insurance helped support the family as the farm grew.

Being a full-time Christmas-tree producer requires agronomic skills.

“After 14 years in the business, I still enjoy seeing the best trees I can produce and talking with customers who buy trees for such a special occasion,” Greg Hann said.

Christmas-tree growers face competition from the artificial-tree industry. But Greg Hann pointed out growing trees provide from seven to 10 years of habitat for wildlife, ranging from turkeys and fox to mice and snakes.

“We have five resident hawks on site,” he said.

Greg Hann belongs to both the Wisconsin Christmas Tree Producers Association and the American Christmas Tree Association. He said he encourage others, especially young people considering going into the business, to join such organizations.

“Even if you cannot attend all of the conferences, you have a chance to talk with other producers and gain knowledge,” Greg Hann said.

He said he encourages other Christmas-tree producers, especially those just starting, to communicate with their local U.S. Department of Agriculture — Farm Service Agency offices. The Farm Service Agency administers a Tree Assistance Program to provide financial assistance to qualifying tree growers to replant or rehabilitate eligible trees damaged by severe weather.

Hanns Christmas Farm is located at 848 Tipperary Road, Oregon. Call 608-835-5464 or visit www.hannschristmasfarm.com for more information.

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