BARABOO, Wis. — Jim Dohner began planting trees in rural Sauk County in the late 1980s. He's been selling his Fraser and white pines since 1997 away from the politics that play out 49.6 miles to the southwest at the state Capitol. That’s where there has been debate recently about what to call the decorated tree that towers under the granite dome.
Dohner’s customers come looking not for holiday trees but Christmas trees for their family rooms, the small corners of apartments and even outdoor decks. They do debate, but it’s about the height, shape and whether or not there will be enough clearance for piles of presents.
“It may take only five minutes when it’s really cold out, otherwise it can be 25 minutes or so,” Dohner said of the families who come to his Christmas Treeland just north of Baraboo. “Everyone wants their own style.”
Christmas trees are big business in Wisconsin, which ranks fifth nationally in sales, number of trees cut and acres of trees, according to the Wisconsin Christmas Tree Producers Association. U.S. Department of Agriculture data shows the state was home in 2017 to 859 Christmas tree farms that cut 700,341 trees. In 2012 the state had nine more farms but cut about 89,000 fewer trees. The number of acres of Christmas trees remained about the same.
Jackson County led the way in 2017 with 165,523 trees cut, followed by Waushara County at 93,243, Lincoln County at 65,647 at and Shawano County at 36,606. Iron, Milwaukee, Menominee and Vilas were the only counties without a tree farm.
“I think we’re doing really well,” said Cheryl Nicholson, executive secretary of the Wisconsin Christmas Tree Producers Association in Portage, Wisconsin. “Wholesalers are sold out, the Christmas tree supply is getting filled, and we don’t have extra trees laying around. There’s enough buyers that all the trees are sold.”
But this is farming so weather is a constant concern. Drought can decimate young trees while too much rain can lead to root rot. Other issues include finding adequate labor as well as finding family members or others to take over tree operations when owners retire.
Nicholson’s parents, Robert and Virginia Mountford, left the business in 2018 after running their farm near Poynette, Wisconsin, since 1957.
“It was kind of a sad thing and kind of an end of an era,” Nicholson said of the decision that's being replicated across the state. “You have families that have done it for a long time, and you have people that can’t continue it and the farm just stops. You do it because you love it so much. It’s like dairy farming.”
Dane County is a hotbed for tree farms due to its large population base surrounded by rural areas. The 41 farms in 2017 in the county harvested almost 20,000 trees.
Alan Motl was working in construction in 2002 when he bought 120 acres near the Maunesha River northwest of Marshall, Wisconsin. About 15 acres of his Riverside Christmas Trees are now covered in Fraser firs as much as 16 feet tall and Canaan firs as much as 11 feet tall. The farm also has white pines, but they won’t be ready for harvest for a few more years. Motl, 60, also sells wreaths, swags and kissing balls. He quit his construction job to focus on the tree farm, which is a full-time endeavor from March through December.
“There’s a lot to be done,” Motl said of trimming and caring for trees as well as maintaining the property. “Within an hour radius two or three (tree farms) have closed down, which means people are looking for other places to go. It gives us more business, but you’re not seeing a lot of people getting into it. My kids don’t have an interest. When I decide in another five years to retire I’ll probably close up.”
Back at Christmas Treeland on Terrytown Road just north of the Baraboo River, Dohner and his wife of 47 years, Suzanne, had 90 acres when they bought the place. But the state through the years has lopped off about 25 acres for road work, including the U.S. Highway 12 bypass. The farm had a slow start when the first two years of plantings were wiped out by drought. But it now sports more than 15,000 trees across 12 acres, some of which were shipped off this past week to be sold at convenience-store lots in Rock Springs and Merrimac, Wisconsin.
The Dohners sell fresh handmade wreaths and offer free cups of apple cider. They even have a freezer stuffed with hamburger made from a herd of grass-fed Black Diamond Angus that graze nearby.
The Dohners have an exit plan that doesn’t involve closing the farm. Their daughter, Jennifer Dohner Albrecht, and her husband plan to take over the business when the elder Dohners retire. Jim Dohner, 68, said the Christmas tree business is somewhat protected from the volatility of the marketplace. The industry offers something more insulated from internet sales than most retail items.
“Amazon can’t affect us much,” Dohner said. “We just want to continue to support the happiness of the individuals that come out here to get a tree because it’s part of their Christmas.”