By Kathleen Lavey
The weather was unseasonably warm at Korson’s Tree Farms near Sidney, but the work at hand was aimed at a perfect December 25th.
Against a gently rolling landscape planted with thousands of Fraser firs, Scotch pines and other varieties of Christmas trees, workers on November 18 picked up trees bundled tightly with twine for shipping and layered them carefully end-to-end on a flatbed tractor-trailer.
Lift, place, adjust. Lift, place adjust.
Each tree was color-coded with spray paint on the cut end to signify its status in the inventory. Destinations included Michigan, Indiana and Missouri.
It took two men to lift one of the trees, a monster two feet longer and almost twice the circumference of the others.
“When you see a tree that looks like that after it’s been baled, that’s a big tree,” said Jessica Korson, who co-owns Korson’s Tree Farms with her husband, Rex. He was in charge of loading and too busy to talk right then. Fourteen trucks filled with trees had gone out the day before. Another had just left.
The centerpiece of holiday décor comes straight from Korson’s and other wholesale Christmas tree farms like it. Michigan is the nation’s third-biggest producer of wholesale trees (behind Oregon and North Carolina), and crunch time is now as they hustle to get trees onto lots in Michigan and across the Midwest.
As the workers loaded trucks outside, a wreath assembly line was hopping inside a red-painted pole barn. A fresh evergreen scent permeated the air as workers with sap-stained hands fastened sprigs of spruce or fir onto wire forms from dinner-plate size to four feet across.
Before the season is out, Korson’s will ship up to 50,000 trees and 16,000 wreaths, garlands and other centerpieces to volunteer groups, retail lots and garden centers as far away as Colorado and Florida. They’re among 560 Christmas tree growers in Michigan and one of the largest. Only 10 growers plant more than 500 acres of trees, according to the Michigan Christmas Tree Association. Korson’s plants 1,000.
Michigan tree farmers harvested just more than 1.7 million trees in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, making the state the third-largest grower in the country. Number one Oregon cut 6.4 million trees and North Carolina produced nearly 4.3 million.
There are Christmas tree farms across Michigan, said Marsha Gray, executive director of the Christmas tree Association, but there’s a concentration of wholesale operations on the west side of the state around Greenville, Lake City and Cadillac. There are fewer farms than you’d think in the Upper Peninsula. “If they have an early, big snow, they can have a hard time getting trees out of the field,” Gray said.
Korson’s grown 10 species of evergreen trees. That diversity of trees is unique to Michigan, Gray said. “Most of the large growing regions, they grow two or three varieties of tree,” she said. Michigan grows a dozen on a wholesale level. “That makes it nice for Michigan consumers, because they have lots of choices.”
Some people prefer the pale blue-green, short-needled blue spruce. Or the classic Scotch pine, dark green and capable of supporting heavy ornaments. The Fraser fir earns its popularity in part because it holds its needles for a long time.
Rex Korson and his crew will plant about 1,000 trees per acre, then nurture them for an average of seven years before cutting them. Crews don’t cut a whole field at once. Instead, they go through fields marking trees that are ready for market. Trees are then sawed down, and mechanically shaken to remove loose needles, loose bark and any debris caught in the branches. They’re put through a baler to be wrapped with twine for shipping.
Thanksgiving weekend is the typical kickoff for fresh tree sales, Gray said. ‘It’s busy, but not overwhelming,” she said, although it’s getting bigger each year. “The first weekend in December, that’s massive. The busiest Christmas tree weekend out there.”