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Published December 21, 2007, 12:00 AM

Tree farms standing firm

During a time of year when bitter cold and snow may get some people down, Roger Priewe sees the bright side of his outdoor industry.

By: Mike Nowatzki,

During a time of year when bitter cold and snow may get some people down, Roger Priewe sees the bright side of his outdoor industry.

“It’s a great business,” said Priewe, who operates a 100-acre Christmas tree farm near Pelican Rapids, Minn., with his wife, Joyce. “People are in a good mood, and they’re happy, and it’s nice to work with them.”

Local tree farmers say business this Christmas season is as good as, or better than, in years past.

“Thanksgiving weekend this year was probably the busiest it’s been in four years,” said Todd Cupkie, whose family runs Cupkie Christmas Village near Perham, Minn.

The National Christmas Tree Association said in November that Christmas tree growers and retailers were expecting an increase in the number of farm-grown trees bought by U.S. consumers.

In an online poll conducted for the association, 25 percent of adult respondents said they planned to buy a real Christmas tree this year. Eight percent said they planned to buy a new artificial tree.

Association President Beth Walterscheidt, a grower from Elgin, Texas, said in a news release that she’s not surprised fewer people are buying new artificial trees, given recent health warnings about lead dust and concerns about imports from China.

Eighty-five percent of artificial trees sold in the United States are manufactured in China, the association said.

Priewe said people appreciate that fresh-cut farm trees don’t lose their needles as quickly, emit a natural fragrance and aren’t sprayed with dye like some lot trees.

Dan Sumpter, who maintains about 20 acres of trees on a farm six miles west of Vergas, Minn., said customers who cut down their own Christmas trees often treat the task as a family outing.

While he said he’s not cashing in big on Christmas trees, he considers the business worthwhile.

“It’s more enjoyable having the people come out here and just chat with people,” he said. “At $20 apiece, I’m not making a fortune.”

Priewe said the most costly part of maintaining a tree farm is shearing for shape and thickness. New limb and branch growth gets trimmed around the Fourth of July each year, when there’s still enough sap flowing to seal the cuts, he said.

“The theory is wherever you cut off, there’ll be five buds (that) come in,” he said. “That’s what gives you a thick tree, where you can’t even see the trunk.”

Priewe said he expects his tree sales this season to match last year’s total of about 600.

He and other tree farmers said many of their buyers are repeat customers.

Shawn Albertson, who works at Weetown Outpost, a tree farm co-owned by his father about 12 miles east of Fergus Falls, Minn., said the farm has seen customers from as far-flung as Grand Forks, N.D., about 150 miles away.

“We’ve got a lot of people who’ve been regular customers of ours for 10 years,” he said.

Albertson recommended the cut-your-own-tree option for families with children.

“Let them pick out the tree,” he said. “Usually, they pick out the ugliest tree, but that’s their first tree.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528 Tree farms standing firm Mike Nowatzki 20071221