The Christmas season is bursting with joy, hope, and a healthy dose of nostalgia. We take it in through all our senses—the sight of fresh snow and glistening lights, the taste of holiday recipes handed down through generations, the sound of carols on the radio, the feeling of holding handmade ornaments. But perhaps nothing brings us so quickly into the holiday spirit than the smell of fresh pine, evergreen, and spruce. Is there anything as completely magical as a fresh-cut Christmas tree?
While we get lost in the memories and moments that flood us around our trees, it’s easy to forget that Christmas trees are also a business, in fact, a pretty big business in Michigan.
“Michigan is the third largest grower of Christmas trees in the country,” said Amy Start, executive director of the Michigan Christmas Tree Association (MCTA). “There are 2 million Christmas trees harvested each year in Michigan, but the magic is that there is one perfect tree for each person or family.”
With only Oregon and North Carolina producing more Christmas trees, Michigan farms grow more than 37,000 acres of commercial trees that produce a $35 million industry for our state. With an average growing cycle of 10 to 12 years before harvest, these are an investment in time, land, and resources, making them a huge commitment.
Scott Powell, manager of Dutchman Tree Farms in Manton, Michigan, is part of the family-owned team that is not only the largest Christmas tree grower in Michigan, but is in the top five producers annually in the United States.
“Christmas trees are our business. For every crop we grow, there are real American families who put their hard work in every day,” said Powell. “There is a lot of joy in the work, but also a lot of responsibility as stewards of the land. We take care of it for future generations to work and enjoy.”
While Dutchman is heavily involved in providing trees to wholesalers—think big-box parking lots with strung lights, making it easier for families to get their tree during their busy lives—they also have a Choose & Cut business that is run by the teenagers in the family, who have grown up trimming and shearing alongside their families for their entire lives.
Others in the Christmas tree and nursery business, like Needlefast Evergreens, a Great Lakes Energy member in Ludington, Michigan, are equally connected by both Christmas trees and family lineage. Started by Bill Nickelson in 1954, the current Needlefast is run by Bill’s son and grandson, Jim and Ben Nickelson. Even Ben’s 11-year-old son has gotten into the business—growing a few rows of strawberries in the off-season and making sure the berries are cared for as he saves enough for next year’s plants.
“The entire business is about family,” said Ben Nickelson. “On Thanksgiving morning, our family comes together and loads trucks full of Christmas trees before we settle into our meal. The next day, families from all over come to visit us to find their perfect tree.”
While many farms have passed through generations, there are those who are still run by their first generation, like Robinson Tree Farm in Traverse City, Michigan, owned by Darrell Robinson. However, the sentiments run just as deep.
“You can’t help but be moved as you watch families come year after year, growing up alongside my own family,” said Robinson. “And then you’ll have someone offer to pay for another family or donating one to a family in need—and you know you’re in the right business.”
Nickelson agrees. “Most of the people who visit our farm are lifelong customers. So often in our everyday, we are looking for things to make life easier. But when the family shows up, picks their tree, decorates it—well, we remember to look for the things that make life better.”
The Michigan Christmas Tree Association (MCTA) is a nonprofit membership organization serving Christmas tree growers in the state of Michigan. The MCTA promotes and markets real Christmas trees to the public, while assisting growers in the state with education and business connections to improve the profitability of their farms.
The Association encourages school field trips and can connect educators with farms in their area.
The MCTA also provides help with coordinating tree donations from Michigan farms for the annual Trees for Troops program. Trees for Troops is a nonprofit program where various farms from around the state donate trees for U.S. troops and their families—to ensure they know others are grateful and thinking of them for their sacrifices during the holiday season.
“It’s the best crop, for the best reason,” said Powell. “While celebrating the birth of Jesus, we also get to be a part of memories for families, to celebrate and remember those they love and have lost. For our family, it’s very personal.”