Northern Minnesota, as nature would have it, is filled with balsam fir trees — a traditional Christmas tree with short, waxy needles.
The trees mean Christmas to many Minnesotans, but they are business for Sam and Jenny McFadden. The Deer River, Minn. couple traverse down bumpy logging roads in northern Minnesota to harvest balsam boughs for their business, Jen's Wreaths.
"Gotta use a bunch of your brain to walk through here don't you," Sam McFadden said as he navigated a forest path strewn with boughs and tree roots.
Sam McFadden, armed with the required state permit, permission from the landowner and a pruning clipper stops to snip boughs from a balsam fir.
Jenny McFadden said their Christmas wreath business started as a way to make extra money.
"My husband told me, he said, 'If you want a vacation, figure out a way to earn it.' And I said, 'Well, I made wreaths as a kid why don't I try doing that,' " she said.
BIG BUSINESS IN MINNESOTA
Harvesting balsam boughs for Christmas wreaths and other decorations is a reasonably big business in Minnesota.
The Department of Natural Resources estimates Minnesota wreath makers account for tens of millions of dollars in business annually.
The trickle down effect can net seasonal workers more than $400 a day. That's what the McFadden's pay bough pickers for a ton of balsam boughs.
They estimate they'll make 6,000 to 8,000 boughs this season. Sam McFadden said the season is a two- to three-month period before and during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.
The McFaddens employ more than a dozen people but consider themselves a small company. Minnesota, it turns out, is something of a balsam bough wreath-making exporter with several companies that make tens of thousands of wreaths a year for big box retailers. The McFaddens say the wreath making sales — theirs and others — have been growing about 20 percent a year.
The chance to earn some seasonal money attracts all kinds of folks, including one especially fit bough picker.
Jenny McFadden said her curiosity got the best of her when she saw that he could carry massive loads of boughs.
"He says he cage fights. He's a cage fighter," she said. "He throws the bundles on his back and he runs them out of the woods."
HARD, REWARDING WORK
Jen's Wreaths subcontractor Jordan Bunker's hands tell a story: Wreath making is a sticky business that takes a toll.
Narrow strips of duct tape cover wreath-making wounds on her fingers. Her palms are blackened with balsam resin, a ubiquitous adhesive during wreath-making season.
"Your hands are covered with it, you've got balsam in and out of your house all winter long everywhere, in the carpet, in the beds," Bunker said. "It's everywhere."
The McFadden's big red barn is filled nearly to the rafters with stacks of balsam boughs.
A heated garage is the wreath workshop.
Workers trim and squeeze the boughs into wire frames, then attach ponderosa pine cones, ribbons and other ornaments. The finished wreaths are shipped coast to coast. Customers include groups selling Christmas wreaths as a fundraiser.
It's peak season which means work days grow to 16 hours.
Sam McFadden said he's considering adding a night shift.
The McFaddens, in their early 30s, appear to thrive on the hum of activity and the stream of phone and email orders.
They balance three occupations — logging, farming and wreath making — a lifestyle with no regular paycheck, Sam McFadden said, but lots of opportunity.
"If you don't want to do it, it's not going to get done and you might starve," he said. "The more you work, the better you do."
Jen McFadden said the last wreath order is out the door by the New Year giving them time together with their three kids.
"To do that when it's all said and done and be a family unit and be functioning, that's a good thing," she said.