Dissatisfied with the pre-made wreaths she found in the big box stores, retired school teacher Barb Morgan decided to make her own. And for the past 14 years, Morgan has found a consumer base eager for her unique wreaths that she creates from a myriad of evergreen boughs harvested from the trees on her 64-acre Adams County, Wis., tree farm.
“I use a mixture of firs, pine, spruce, hemlock and cedar so they’re very full and the kind of unique wreaths people enjoy,” said Morgan, adding that her business, Wreaths by Barb of Morgan’s Trees and Wreaths, also fashions wreaths for weddings, Valentine’s Day, funerals and more. “I begin making wreaths in November all the way through April.”
With just her younger brother helping to cut boughs, Morgan assembles the wreaths herself and creates about 350-plus pieces before the season is done.
“It’s a lot of work. During November, I’m putting in 10- to 12-hour days,” she said.
Soon after the Halloween decorations come down, many Christmas tree growers throughout the Midwest begin cutting boughs from the evergreens on their farms and transporting them into the sheds where crews begin assembling them into wreaths.
George Richardson, one of the owners of the family-owned Richardson Adventure Farm in Spring Grove, Ill., said employees head out into the business’ 540-acre farm and search for the trees that have been overlooked by customers.
“We grow trees in blocks of 1,000 per species and about the tenth year after most of the trees have been harvested by our customers, we go out and harvest the trees that are left behind either because they’re too fat, too thin or missing branches and we use them to make wreaths, roping and garland,” Richardson said.
Inside the Christmas tree barn, employees begin snipping the boughs and sorting them into bundles. From there, the greens are assembled into wreaths on four to five tables equipped with crimping machines that fasten the boughs onto the wire rings and frames.
“We also make our own bows using high-quality materials,” Richardson said. “People see wreaths in big box stores with a plastic bow and two pine cones. We don’t go there. While our wreaths cost more, they’re very beautifully done with ribbons and greens.”
Richardson said his farm expects to sell 1,000 wreaths this year and about 7,000 “cut your own” trees.
“Our farm has been in the family since 1840 and we raised about 3,000 pigs. One year, we decided to plant evergreens in the pastures where the dairy cattle used to be. Seven years later, when we sold our first trees, we decided this was a whole lot more fun for us than raising pigs,” he said. “We’ve expanded over the years and now we grow between 85,000 to 90,000 trees, planting 10,000 seedlings every year.”
Kathy Parker, president of the Minnesota Christmas Tree Association, said most Christmas tree farms make their money in a small six-week window. Her family’s tree farm, Cornerstone Pines in Grey Eagle, Minn., is a hub of activity this time of year.
“It’s not like we can cut evergreen boughs in June or July and assemble them slowly. Instead, we’re pushing them out in the weeks between the beginning of November and Christmas,” Parker said. “It’s crazy and hard work, but when the people come at Christmas time and we see all their smiles, it makes it worthwhile.”
Parker said the majority of Christmas wreaths made in the Midwest are created from the fragrant balsam boughs.
“They’re easy to work with and readily available. Some people used to use spruce, but the branches are so picky!” she said. “Instead, we’re turning to Fraser firs, white and Norway pine.”
According to the USDA, U.S. Christmas tree growers harvested 17.3 million trees in 2012. Oregon lead the way with 6.4 million trees harvested, and Michigan and Wisconsin among the top five, ranking third and fifth respectively with 1.7 million and 0.6 million trees harvested.
Northern Family Farms in Merrillan, Wis., is among the growers contributing to those totals. Co-partner and member of the Wisconsin Christmas Tree Producers Association, Ashley Ahl said the Midwest is fast becoming one of the leading areas to produce Christmas trees.
With 3,500 acres of the farm’s total 7,000 acres devoted to growing Christmas trees, Northern Family Farms is the largest grower in Wisconsin, selling 135,000 trees a year in the wholesale market to customers such as Menards and Steins Gardens and Gifts.
“North Carolina and the West Coast are the two biggest areas for growing Christmas trees and the Midwest is right behind them,” Ahl said. “The weather is a bit more mild in the state of Michigan (due to the lakes) which is basically in Zone 5, so that state has become a major producer. In Wisconsin, in the southern part of the state, it can be too warm to grow the Frasier firs, while up north where we are, it’s a little colder and trees grow a little bit slower.”
The West Coast’s temperate region makes it an ideal place to grow Christmas trees.
“Canada is also a major producer of Christmas trees as well,” Ahl said.
Ahl said the Fraser fir has taken over the market, especially in the Midwest.
“A lot of that has to do with its green color and the silvery underside which makes it visually appealing, and its needle retention is also a big draw with customers,” she said. “However, it’s not the easiest tree to grow. It’s not a natural pine that grows like a weed up here. In order to get them ready for market, there’s a lot of care involved including fertilizing them.”
Richardson said growers have a lot to do with the increasing popularity in some species of trees.
“We may have encouraged that due to the types of trees we grow and offer. Over the years, there’s been a general shift in consumer preference towards the shorter needle trees,” he said. “The tree of choice used to be the Scotch pine in the old days but now people like the short needle look. In fact, we stopped growing Scotch pines two years ago.”
As long as Christmas trees are grown in abundance throughout the Midwest, there will be plenty of boughs to create Christmas wreaths.
“Hanging a Christmas wreath is a tradition. It tends to make a statement outside your house that you’re in the Christmas spirit,” Parker said. “People can’t see the tree inside your home so when they see the wreath on your door, they see that you like to celebrate and decorate and the wreath does that for us.”