By Kim Lamoreaux
and Anna Krejci
Many Christmas tree growers have plenty of green adult trees to sell this holiday, despite having lost a significant amount of seedlings due to this year’s drought.
Jim Wagner, owner of Wagner Tree Farm in Lyndon Station, said he lost a lot of young trees because they don’t have an established root system like the older ones.
“We need moisture,” he said.
Visitors to John Van Ert’s nursery on county Highway V outside Reedsburg can cut down their own tree, if they choose.
Customers can drive up a hill on Van Ert’s 24-acre tree farm and walk among the pines, oaks and maples he meticulously nurtures and enjoy the view and nature.
He already sold 80 percent of his tree stock for this year. The rush came the weekend following Thanksgiving Day and trailed off from there.
Van Ert, a Vietnam veteran, started the nursery in 1980. But he’s been growing Scotch pines since 1978.
To look around the farm, you wouldn’t know a drought had befallen his crop.
But growing conditions at this nursery aren’t much better than anywhere else.
His losses represent three years of tree growth. He said in four years, he may have to close the gate where customers drive through to go up the hill to pick out their tree.
“Every fir I planted this spring, last year and the previous year all died,” Van Ert said. “The drought of 1988 was not as bad as this drought. This is probably the worst in 50 years. Many, many people are going to be in the same boat. It’ll be a problem for four or five years.”
At two years seedlings are typically lifted and replanted and stay in the new bed for two more years. Van Ert said the top growth plateaus and the tree grows more stem caliper and sturdier roots within those four years.
He said in the next few years, most people will have forgotten about this summer’s drought and why there is a Christmas tree shortage.
But that doesn’t mean Van Ert won’t be selling trees, including Christmas trees, in the coming years.
“If I do close the gate for a couple years,” Van Ert said, “I’ll buy trees every year to supplement my own trees. It could be seven years instead of four that I have my own trees.”
Van Ert said it’s always better to have a live Christmas tree than an artificial one every year for many reasons, including his own preference.
“In the traditional days we had a real tree,” Van Ert said. “I think the plastic isn’t any good. I don’t like artificial things. A live tree supplies oxygen, and it gives the birds a place to habitat and enables me to buy milk. I get a lot of happy faces out here.”
At Wagner Tree Farm in Lyndon Station, customers also can come and select a tree and cut it down. The business is open on weekends now until Christmas and by appointment at other times.
Wagner said he planted 2,200 trees in April and May, he said, adding that about 70 to 80 percent of them were lost due to the summer drought.
Wagner said for the first time in the 18 years he’s had the farm, he planted trees in the fall to make up for what was lost.
Six weeks ago he planted 800 trees, he said.
Next spring he plans to plant 2,200 more trees because the drought not only took this year’s new plantings, but trees planted last year succumbed to the drought, too, he said.
When asked how he felt about the drought, Wagner said, “Once you farm, you’re involved with what nature presents itself,” he said. He added it’s the response that’s most important.
If the winter doesn’t bring a lot of snow, he said his adult trees could be negatively affected in the future.
Wagner said it takes 10 years to grow his trees to the right height for harvesting.
Bill Wilde is an employee at Wagner Tree Farm, and he said he’s always had a real Christmas tree in his home at the holidays.
So he was concerned when he saw how dry everything was.
“I noticed a lot of little seedlings we planted in the spring were already gone,” he said.
Thankfully there are enough adult trees ready to be cut that survived the drought.
“My wife really likes the smell of a live tree,” Wilde said.
After Christmas, Wilde likes to set the tree on his property next to his bird feeders and let wild birds take shelter in it.
Several other tree farm owners in the area said they still have a supply of Christmas trees that are ready to be harvested for home decoration.
“The trees that did hold up through the drought, they look beautiful. The color is good. The foliage looks good,” said Diane Chapman, co-owner of Silent Night Evergreens in Endeavor, a wholesaler that supplies trees to stores and service clubs.
Like at Wagner’s farm, Silent Night Evergreens lost the newly planted trees.
She said in six to seven years, people might see a shortage, but they’ll plant extra trees next year to make up for what they just lost.
Chapman suggested people keep a lot of water in their Christmas tree stands, although she said they give the same advice every year.
The water level can’t drop below the base of the tree, she said.
Another tree farm, Christmas Treeland in Baraboo, is open for business, too, despite the drought.
“Farmers across the state lost all their crops last summer from the drought, but luckily there’s still enough Christmas trees to go around,” said Suzanne Dohner, owner of Christmas Treeland.
Dohner said in a news release that 35 million American families bring a real Christmas tree in their homes.
“We’re not selling trees, we’re selling an experience,” Dohner said. “You can’t compare dragging an old plastic tree from the basement with a family outing to a tree farm to pick your own.”
The Van Ert Nursery is located at S2114 county Highway V and is open Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. for those who wish to cut their own tree. John Van Ert has some trees already cut and is open until 5 p.m. for those customers.
The nursery is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays for cutting and until 5 p.m. for trees that are already cut.