Minnesota’s Christmas tree farms are busier than ever getting ready to sell their harvest to the public. The demand for live trees remains strong despite much of the state suffering repeated droughts during the last several years.
With evergreen scent wafting around him, Brewery Hill Christmas Tree Farm owner Scott Wilson prepared his sales lot in rural Le Sueur, Minn. There are piles of handmade wreaths. There’s also some decorated porch pots. Nothing from the trees goes to waste.
He points to the trees he expects to be the season’s best sellers.
“You have Fraser fir, you have Balsam fir, you have Canaan fir. But fir is the king tree right now,” he says.
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Wilson unhitched his trailer and hopped into his work truck. Driving through the property, he points out the nearby Minnesota River. The trees stand in orderly rows, stretching across the gentle hillsides. He says they sometimes have problems with deer, munching on the low branches “like candy.”
When Wilson and his father started the farm in 1981, it was all cropland. Back then, they planted Scotch pines during the early start of their Christmas tree venture.
“Now, hardly anybody wants a pine,” he said. “So, that’s how you gotta remember. It’s eight years to a harvest. So you plant something that nobody’s gonna want. That’s kind of a wasted eight years.”
Young saplings are especially vulnerable to disease and extreme weather conditions, including drought.
But, Wilson embraces the climate’s unpredictability and challenge as he works his family’s farm.
“It’s all about nature, it’s all about life,” he said. “And you get to enjoy that natural resource as long as you can, while you can. And, it gives back some wealth of income along the way.”
The six inches of rainfall in September helped their trees recover from the most recent drought. Wilson said they experienced much worse during the severe droughts in 1988 and 1989.
“I lost everything,” he said. “Everything died in those years. So, the last two years have been bad, but not as bad as they could be. As far as our trees that we have, and you can see them out here in the lot, the colors are beautiful.”
Unusual drought conditions, increasing demands
While Minnesota is slowly recovering, the accumulated rain deficits are between eight to 15 inches below normal in the southern parts of the state over the last three years.
Trees take two to four years to recover from droughts. Luigi Romolo, state climatologist with the Minnesota DNR, said it’s unclear why droughts are developing more often and more severely. He also said that a slow spring melt in March and April will be needed in order to recharge soils for planting season.
“We’ve just had a little bit of bad luck these last few years,” Romolo said. “We’re hoping that things will turn around and we’ll get back into a normal pattern. But, until that happens, we’re just going to have to endure with what we’re experiencing.”
The drought hit the agricultural industry especially hard. Farmers spent more on irrigation. Romolo said it’s possible that Christmas tree prices might increase and inventory might vary.
“Drought is a natural part of our climate,” he said. “But, there’s nothing natural about what we’ve been experiencing in the last three years.”
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand for live Christmas trees outpaced the supply. Ben Wolcyn, president of the Minnesota Christmas Tree Association, said he and many other farms dipped into their inventories during those years.
He said Wolcyn Tree Farms and Nursery in Cambridge, Minn., plants two to three trees for every tree they harvest. Wolcyn said in order to restock they’re ramping up production. This season, they’ll harvest around 25,000 Christmas trees, and next spring, they’ll plant about 80,000.
“We had to do a lot of managing, but it’s been a good thing for our industry,” Wolcyn said. “For a lot of families to experience having a real tree for the first time, hopefully it’s a tradition that they’ll continue going into the future.”
Woclyn said people wanting to buy a live tree should do some planning and know the tree they pick out at a lot might be a different size or species depending on when and where they go.
“Just be adaptable,” he said. “There’s plenty of trees for everyone. We are very humbled by the fact that we get to provide the centerpiece to a lot of families’ Christmas celebrations. It’s not something we take lightly.”
This demand for live Christmas trees also means the industry also continues to adapt to the changing climate. Whether that’s planting more drought-resilient trees, planting cover crops in between rows, or running programs that rent out trees for a week and replanting them in the spring.
There’s a lot of dialogue happening in the holiday greenery industry, Wolcyn said. Drought is a challenge, but he doesn’t see it entirely as a negative.
“I actually get excited when I hear about drought because that means we’re growing a real product,” he said. “We’re not in a lab or in a manufacturing plant. We’re producing something. We’re out in God’s creation, and experiencing the challenges of that. But with that comes something that’s real. That’s what we have.”
Generations of holiday spirit and tradition
Christmas tree farms are often operated by generations of families. That’s how it is at Brewery Hill Christmas Tree Farm in Le Sueur.
Scott Wilson stopped by his late wife Mary’s grave underneath a big oak tree on the property, now called “The Proposal Tree.”
It’s the same spot where Wilson asked her to marry him on her birthday decades ago. It’s become a popular spot for other couple’s proposals in the years since.
Wilson said had no idea the farm would grow into the operation that it is today, with new generations of his family helping during the holidays.
“All my kids are part of the process and without them, I couldn’t do it,” Wilson said. “They give up their time and they have jobs, yet where’s the family? Our family comes together here big time and we’re doing things together … my heart is full with that.”
Meanwhile, it’s business as usual for Brewery Hill. Wilson’s already opening up for business this weekend.
He’s ready for another season of welcoming families into his farm for the holidays and keeping traditions alive.
“Sometimes I have to actually tell myself just how fortunate I am, in the end to grow things and stuff like that and have the beauty of it,” Wilson said. “I am pretty blessed when it comes to a lot of stuff, and I don’t take that for granted.”