Rural northern Wisconsin is so involved in the business of Christmas that you might expect us all to dress in red and green like Santa’s elves. Actually, elves this far south of the North Pole tend to wear Carhartt brown and blaze orange. But lately, it feels like we’ve been splashed with Grinch Green.
The townspeople looked to the left and the right.
No Christmas trees anywhere — not one tree in sight.
The tree lots were bare! And holiday cheer
Would be spoiled because of a shortage this year.
It’s not the supply chain this time that’s to blame.
No! Too many tree farms got out of the game.
In the mid-Aughts, there were growers galore.
And so we assumed there would always be more
Affordably priced trees, perfectly shorn,
Conveniently shipped like our summer sweet corn.
Up here, growing Christmas trees used to be almost as common as making maple syrup. It’s a crop that seems to thrive in our sandy soil. There’s planting, weeding, mowing, and shearing involved and it takes 7 to 10 years before you get a harvest. But for a long time, growing Christmas trees was a pretty safe bet, even on marginal soil. And not just for the big tree farms: Lots of small growers put in trees to generate some extra cash — eventually.
Wisconsin is the fifth largest producer of Christmas trees in the nation. It’s a crop that contributes $50 million to the state’s economy. But flip back the calendar about as long it takes to get this crop ready for market. A decade ago there were so many growers with trees to sell that prices dropped. Meanwhile, the financial crises of that era caused consumers to tighten their purse strings. Sales suffered. Profit margins shrunk. Even some of the 5000 U-Cut tree farms in the U.S. may be regretting a decade-old decision on how much to plant. Sure, it may look like they have trees galore. But some of those are intended for harvest next year, or a year or two or four after that.
Who could have guessed just how much pandemic-weary urbanites would want a perfect 9-foot balsam this holiday season? The growers who didn’t plant (or didn’t plant enough) for this year’s crop are not Scrooging would-be buyers. Believe me, they wish they had those trees to sell. Really wish they had trees to sell — as in sales that could cover the property tax bills that just came in the mail.
Others did plant, did tend, and do have trees to sell this year, but may have struggled to find labor to help cut, bale, and truck the crop to market. Or the labor challenge may have hit the other side of the equation, such as garden centers and other businesses downstate that come up north to pick up a load of trees directly from the grower.
Some growers here don’t haul their trees out of the area at all: They watch their harvest head south in ones and twos in utility trailers, pickup truck beds, and tied to the roofs of SUVs alongside (or possibly in place of) the deer that hunters came north to shoot. Langlade County trees might be to Christmas what Spotted Cow is to beer lovers — something special you can’t buy just anywhere.
When I moved here, I didn’t know a thing about how Christmas trees are grown. I grew up in Indiana. It was the era of easy-to-assemble tinsel “trees” patented by people who made toilet brushes. A revolving wheel of colored lights made the tree look festive and amped up the holiday vibe from the lava lamp on the hi-fi.
But the first place I rented here had a plot of young Christmas trees planted to pay the taxes on that land sometime down the road. That rental sold before those trees were ready to harvest. The new owner tore down the drafty cottage I had lived in and built a cedar home with a vaulted ceiling tall enough to do justice to her favorite season — Christmas. Instead of cutting the trees at her own place she always got one from a local grower — a 10- or 12-foot beauty, the biggest tree that would fit through the door. She had bubble lights, and Waterford crystal ornaments, and other treasures she had collected on her travels. She needed trees with branches strong enough to support all that. Her trees were magical — like something you might see on stage in a performance of The Nutcracker.
Our trees, on the other hand, come straight out of A Charlie Brown Christmas. Bill and I live at the edge of USDA National Forest lands. Lots of trees on those lands. Lots. And you can buy a permit to harvest a tree for your personal use. For cheap. We appreciate tree farm trees. But Forest Service trees were all we could afford at one time. And we have 8-foot ceilings and a floor plan that makes you appreciate a tree that’s flat on one side.
For years our holiday tradition started with a visit to the Forest Service ranger station to get our tree permit. Then we would swing by the small grocery store to pick up a hot pasty to eat in the truck on the way to our special tree-cutting spot. There, Bill and I and our dogs would hike or snowshoe in with a folding saw and flexible expectations.
Our intention has always been to cut something from a clump, making more room and sunlight available to benefit the trees left behind. We might have made some choices that didn’t quite qualify as “release cutting” in years where the temperatures were sub-zero or the snow was over a foot deep. (I can make a decision very quickly when my eyelashes are freezing.) But it’s a joy to revisit spots where we cut 10 or 15 years ago, where trees we left standing are now way too big for our house. Unfortunately, trees that fit our particular needs are now scarce at that spot.
So we’ve decided our New Year’s resolution will be to scout for a new spot before it’s time to cut next year’s Christmas tree. The Forest Service map of open and restricted cutting zones is online now. I miss seeing the big map in the ranger station, but it’s hard to get there during their limited office hours. Budget cuts. This year we even bought our Christmas tree cutting permit online.
We may not manage to see another spot transformed by our selective cutting over a couple of decades. We’re old enough to envision a time when we can no longer tromp through the woods to cut a tree and drag it out ourselves. When that time comes, we won’t have far to go to get a nice tree farm tree. I might regret the cleaning frenzy where I took all our heavy ornaments to the thrift shop. But if we have to, we can Edward Scissorhands one side to make it flat enough to fit in our living room.
Donna Kallner writes from eastern Langlade County in rural northern Wisconsin.