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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Saturday, Aug. 23, 2014

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In Travel & Visitors Guide

So, where is the Christmas tree capital?


Two state communities claim status as Christmas tree capitals.

Don't expect to see two guys in Santa suits from Merrillan and Wautoma duking it out, however. It's a friendly competition.

"I think the Wautoma area actually produces the most trees," says John Ahl, who produces about 150,000 trees a year near Merrillan, which is in Jackson County.

"Merrillan is on the (Christmas tree) map, though. Trees are a big part of the economy here because the community is very small."

Both Merrillan and Wautoma, which is in Waushara County, claim capital status. Merrillan isn't quite as bold, claiming national capital status on a sign outside town. Wautoma claims to be "The Christmas Tree Capital of the World" on signs, Web sites and in other advertising.

If you travel to Oregon, North Carolina, Michigan and Pennsylvania, you will find other communities that claim that same status. But, those states are the only ones that produce more Christmas trees than Wisconsin.

The state produces about 1.6 million trees annually. Oregon leads the country with around 6.4 million. Christmas trees represent a $50 million industry in Wisconsin. It's an industry made up of small, independent farmers.

"I think in the entire country there is one producer who has about three to four percent of the market," says Ahl, whose family has been in the Christmas tree business for about 50 years. "After that the percentages fall off dramatically for any one producer. This truly is a small business, run by families. I don't really know of a conglomerate in it."

This does not mean that these independent farmers don't have a networking system. "We don't grow a commodity that people will just come to us and buy," Ahl says. "We have to market and network our product."

In Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Christmas Tree Association in Portage provides marketing and networking help. "Marketing is a big issue in the Christmas tree industry," says Cheryl Nicholson, executive secretary of the association.

"We provide a buyers' guide for our members, through which they can find and contact buyers," Nicholson says. "Our producers sell to small garden centers and the 'big box' companies."

The WCTA also is linked with the National Christmas Tree Association, which helps market trees around the country. The NCTA has linked with the popular movie and book, "The Polar Express," this season to aid its promotions.

NCTA also sponsors the annual Grand Champion tree competition, which provides the national tree to the White House. Several Wisconsin growers have provided that tree over the years. Jim and Diane Chapman, two-time winners of the Grand Champion honor, were the latest with a Fraser Fir in 2003.

State growers also provide the State Capitol Christmas tree and other official trees around Wisconsin. This year's tree is from the Brule area.

The process for growing Christmas trees varies, in part, on the species. Sixteen different varieties of pine are used as Christmas trees around the country. The most popular include the Balsam Fir, Fraser Fir and Scotch Pine.

Most trees that end up in sales lots are 7-10 years old, according to Nicholson. They have gone through a long process from seed to harvest. Some nurseries specialize in planting the seeds and then sell seedlings to growers.

"We start with plugs and put the small trees in greenhouse boxes," Ahl says. "We move them to a transplant bed in one to two years. Then, we lift them and transplant them in the field."

During these early years, like any plant, the trees are susceptible to diseases, but growers, with the help of WCTA and others, have become adept at preventing such threats.

Once the trees are in the field, they still must be protected from diseases and are regularly "groomed" so they develop good shapes. Nicholson says an average healthy tree will grow 12 inches a year once it is in the field.

A rule of thumb on harvesting the trees is after two or three hard frosts. The trees become dormant over winter, so growers don't want to wait too late to cut them.

Of course, Christmas trees spark feelings of nostalgia and lore. Wisconsin was once famous for its Christmas tree ships that ran throughout the Great Lakes. For more on those, see an article in OMC's 2004 Holiday Guide.

For more on the business aspect of the Christmas tree industry in Wisconsin, see a WisBiz In-Depth column by Gregg Hoffmann on wisbusiness.com.

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