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Winter 2000: North Dakota Christmas Tree Farmers

Posted by Lorraine Sommerfeld 10/20/2016 10:46:18 AM

The Victorians borrowed the Christmas tree from a medieval German midwinter celebration; and, as early as 1605, the first decorated tree was documented by a visitor to Strasbourg, then a part of the Hapsburg Empire. In 1800 a tree was put up for a party by Queen Charlotte, the German-born wife of George III, for a Christmas Day party at Windsor Castle.

Electric lights for the tree made their Christmas debut in the United States in 1882, at the New York home of Edward H. Johnson, an associate of Thomas Edison, who had created the first electric light bulb three years earlier.

Today, the decorated Christmas tree remains firmly entrenched as a holiday symbol. For the past 11 years, the Bismarck Arts and Galleries Association (BAGA) has celebrated the holiday season with a Festival of Trees in Bismarck, as a fundraiser for BAGA.

"It provides a unique opportunity to showcase the creative talents of the many artists and BAGA members in our community," said Sue Cahill, co-chair for the festival. "The decorated trees are then auctioned off via live or silent auctions during the course of the evening."

The majority of the Christmas trees sold on rental lots in North Dakota are not grown in our state. The last survey indicated the primary sources of Christmas trees are Minnesota and Wisconsin, with only a small percent grown in our state.

Christmas tree production can be a successful enterprise and can be profitable if a grower is willing to invest a considerable amount of money and put in many hours of hard work. Christmas trees take seven to 10 years to reach a marketable size of five to seven feet. The demand for Christmas trees over eight feet is relatively small.

Growers are faced with management decisions on species selection, tree quality requirements and marketing strategy. "Without accurate information about the Christmas tree industry, tree growers are forced to base such decisions on speculation," said Larry Kotchman, of the North Dakota Forest Service, Walhalla, N.D.

At the same time, Christmas tree retailers are interested in obtaining a quality product to satisfy consumer demands. "To ensure continued success, retailers then need to inform the growers of consumer preference and any market trends for Christmas trees," Kotchman said. North Dakota growers have proved they can produce quality Christmas trees, provided they know a market exists for their products.

There are three U.S.D.A. grades of Christmas trees: premium and U.S. No. 1, both choice grades which means high quality and are likely to bring higher prices at the wholesale and retail levels; U.S. No. 2, or the standard tree grade, allows some defects, but the tree may be both attractive and satisfying to the customer; and culls, which include trees of poor quality, unable to meet the U.S. No. 2 grade. Quality is the most important factor affecting the price of Christmas trees.

"Growing Christmas trees requires special knowledge and skill," Kotchman said. "A grower must be committed to producing a quality tree. The days of letting Mother Nature 'do her thing' are long gone." Shoppers look for dense, full-shaped trees that can only be produced through intensive management. Selecting a proper Christmas tree species is one of the most important decisions facing a grower.

The most commonly planted and most popular Christmas tree species in our state is the Scotch pine. They are winter-hardy, fast-growing, do well in most soil types and respond well to shearing. Shearing is the most important step in producing a top-quality tree. It shapes the tree and increases the density of the foliage, giving it a pleasing appearance. Shearing should start the third year after planting and must continue each year until the tree is sold. Pines are sheared in late June to early July, while spruce are sheared from July to April.

Several Christmas tree plantations located across the state offer "choose and cut" services. This can be a wonderful tradition to start off the holiday season. It allows an opportunity to pick just the right size and form of tree to fit your needs, from a small tabletop tree to a chapel-size tree.

One of the keys to a tree retaining its freshness - and its needles - lies in buying it fresh. When you are looking over trees, grasp a branch between your thumb and forefinger and pull it gently toward you. Very few needles should come off in your hand if the tree is fresh. Store the tree in an unheated area until you are ready to put it up. When ready, cut off the base of the trunk and place it in water away from heat sources. A tree will absorb as much as a gallon of water in the first 24 hours and one or more quarts a day thereafter.

"Real Christmas trees contribute to the environment before and after they are used as a holiday symbol," said Glenda Fauske, of the North Dakota Forest Service, Bottineau, N.D. "It is estimated that one acre of Christmas trees will produce the daily oxygen requirement for 18 people. Christmas trees help hold the soil of highly erodible lands, as well as enhance the landscape during winter months."

After Christmas, the trees can provide wildlife habitat or be recycled to provide excellent fisheries habitat in lakes or they can be chipped to serve as mulch.

Hartl Hollow was a dream that became a reality when Ron and Kevin Hartl, along with their wives Charlotte and Christy, purchased a 132-acre tract of land two miles east of Enderlin, N.D. Despite their lack of experience, the four jumped in feet first. "We've been loving it every since!" Ron Hartl said. They learned from their mistakes; but they feel the greatest reason for their success so far has come from the help and knowledge they have received from the former owner, Allen Hanson. "We all agree that it is a lot more work than we expected; but we all truly enjoy it," Hartl said.

They make fresh-cut wreaths in a variety of sizes and shapes. "We sell almost all of our trees choose and cut," Hartl said. "It's really fun to watch families and their children go off to pick out their Christmas tree. There are many who pack a lunch and make a whole-day outing out of it and really enjoy the experience."

Hartl Hollow is open every weekend starting on Thanksgiving Day to Christmas. "We always try to have hot cider on hand," Hartl said, "and if anyone has a problem or is unable to cut their own tree, someone is always available to give a hand and to cut the tree for you. Stop by Hartl's Hollow and see just how beautiful it is!" Kevin Hartl can be reached by calling 701-437-3311.

Page's Perfect Pine Plantation, owned by Margaret and John Page, is located near Cavalier, N.D., and is the largest Christmas tree operation in the state. "At one time we had 300 acres in trees; but we have sold some tree land, and now have about 60 acres devoted to trees," Margaret said. "It is John's retirement hobby with about 700 trees available for sale this year."

John trucks his trees to many points in the state, such as Bottineau, Jamestown, Bismarck, Fargo and small towns where he will drop off 30-to-60 trees. He also sells in Minnesota and South Dakota and has shipped trees to Houston, Texas. "I prefer to have the majority of deliveries done prior to Thanksgiving because I want to be home for the local business of choose and cut," John said.

"When people come to cut their own trees, we offer them a small handheld saw and suggest an area where they might find the variety they want," Margaret said. "They can wander around as long as they wish." The Pages recommend that customers come in daylight hours; although, some have cut trees by flashlight. "We see many customers coming back, year after year," Margaret said.

"For a tree that's really fine, get a Page's Perfect Pine," has been John's motto since the late 1960s. Like all agriculture, it is weather-related. "Drought, hail and hard winters like 1979 and 1997 can really cause problems in a nice field of trees," John said. "I expect to retail and wholesale for a long time yet; but with age working on me, it will be on a smaller scale than in the past."

Margaret remembered when they first became interested in growing Christmas trees in the early 60s. They had only been married a few years and were in the process of raising their children. "John's statement to me at the time was, "The trees will finance our children's college educations." I'm sure it helped," Margaret said.

Thomas Tusser (1524-1580) wrote: "At Christmas play and make good cheer, for Christmas comes but once a year."

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