The business of Christmas: Local tree sellers see strong demand for real tree tradition

Now that Thanksgiving meals are over, the time has come to trim the trees.

Area Christmas tree growers and sellers have been preparing for customers to come pick out trees, a tradition that they said is still alive and well.

Thomas Ochs — who runs Ochs Christmas Tree Farm outside of Galena, Ill., with his brothers, Rick and Steve — said he has even seen more people coming out to select and cut down their own Christmas trees in recent years, as opposed to putting up artificial trees.

“I guess people are going back to the real tradition,” he said. “And families don’t just come out with just parents and kids. They come out with grandparents and their extended family. It’s a big family experience. They’re happy to be out there. It’s not like they’re fighting for things at Target or something. People always seem to like to come out.”

According to the National Christmas Tree Association, an estimated 20.98 million real Christmas trees were purchased last year across the country. In the U.S. alone, there are nearly 350 million real Christmas trees growing on Christmas tree farms at a given time.

Customers can get various types of trees for their holiday decorating, with pine, spruce and fir being the most common. But Doug Wagner Jr. — a fourth-generation owner of Wagner Nursery in Asbury, Iowa — said the growing process starts the same way for all trees.

“They all started in the ground in a field somewhere,” he said. “We still grow a lot of our own trees. We just don’t do spruce because it takes so much longer to get them to a decent size, and with the space we have, there are other avenues we could use that space for. The biggest growers are in Oregon. The environment, the climate and everything is perfect out there.”

Wagner said the nursery sources its trees from several places in Oregon, Minnesota and Michigan. At those places, he said, Christmas trees start out growing in tree liners in a controlled environment. Trees start at 3 to 9 inches in height, often coming from the cutting of another tree.

After the trees grow to about 18 inches, Wagner said, they are transferred to a field to grow to their desired size. Spruce trees can grow several feet in two or three years, he said, but the large, 10-foot trees can take anywhere from eight to 15 years to grow.

People start looking for trees around mid-November, Wagner said, and some still are buying right up until a day or two before Christmas.

“(Christmas trees) are another way to bring in revenue when we wouldn’t normally be bringing in other revenue,” he added.

Ochs said the tree farm is a seasonal job for his family.

“My dad (David Ochs) started the tree farm, and he passed away in 2007,” Thomas Ochs said. “Me and my two brothers have been running it since then. It’s just a little hobby farm, a weekend thing.”

Ochs Christmas Tree Farm opened Friday. Thomas Ochs said the 8-foot trees ready for sale were planted about a decade ago. The farm sells pine, spruce and fir trees, as well as wreaths and garland made from trees that will not sell.

Thomas Ochs said he and his brothers usually set a goal for trees sold every year before they decide when to close the farm for the season. He said the business used to be open four weekends per year, but that since has turned into two weekends annually.

“We set a goal for trees to sell (a year),” he said. “Once we hit that limit, we decide whether to stay open or close up. If we oversell, we don’t have enough trees for next year.”

Wagner Nursery is promoting a new way of selling its Christmas spruce trees — selling them in pots.

Wagner said the option has been available to customers who wanted it for several years, but this is the first year the business will be advertising it to the wider public.

“We used to grow our own Christmas trees (to cut down),” he said. “My great-grandfather did that. My grandfather did that. My father did that. But with all the big box stores coming in, we couldn’t compete anymore. Now what we do is, we don’t grow your traditional Christmas trees. What our niche is now is, we try to adhere to the environmentalists, the savvy green-thumb people.”

With the potted spruce trees, customers either can lease the tree and bring it back to the nursery, plant the tree in the spring or transfer it to bigger pots and use the tree for multiple years. Trees also will come in smaller options that might fit better in an apartment or on a countertop.

Wagner noted that reasons people use artificial trees is so they don’t have to buy a new tree every year, to have more size options and to be more environmentally conscious by not cutting down a tree.

“That’s why I think there’s such a big market for what we’re trying to do,” Wagner said. “If you want a real tree, but you don’t want a big one and don’t want to waste one by cutting it down, there’s more value in your dollar spent.”