April 21, 2021

Oh, Christmas Tree!

Meet Manton’s mega-million Christmas tree producer, Dutchman Tree Farms
By Craig Manning | Dec. 19, 2020

Rockefeller Center in New York City might be the home to the country’s most famous jumbo Christmas tree, but the Big Apple isn’t the only city in the United States with a big tree. And if you’ve spotted one of the big trees in Grand Rapids, Detroit, Chicago, or even Oklahoma City, chances are very good it was grown right here in northern Michigan.

DEEP ROOTS
Christmas tree farms aren’t necessarily a rare sight in Michigan, but Dutchman Tree Farms remains unique. The Manton-based Christmas tree farm has a history dating back decades, all the way to 1960 when the very first crop of Dutchman trees was planted. Since then, Dutchman has grown into the largest Christmas tree producer in the state of Michigan, and one of the largest and most prominent sellers of Christmas trees in the entire United States.

Precisely how big is Dutchman Tree Farms? According to Marketing Director Kate Dodde, the company owns or leases between 9,000 and 10,000 acres of tree farmland throughout northern Michigan, spanning from Bear Lake to Fife Lake. Dodde says Dutchman is “right at a million trees right now” in terms of yearly sales; the business also makes and ships close to half a million Christmas wreaths per year.

It’s not just holiday season sales, either: In the spring and summer, Dutchman Tree Farms sells landscaping trees, container-grown, and ready-to-plant trees. And while big trees for city centers and town squares are among the highest-profile Christmas trees that Dutchman sells, the farm also grows and ships household-sized evergreens to Christmas tree lots and retailers (including Lowes and Home Depot) throughout the country.

As one might expect, a lot goes into growing, managing, harvesting, and shipping such a massive number of Christmas trees every year. By now, less than a week out from Christmas, Dutchman Tree Farms has officially cycled into its slower season. Dodde says the company revs up to peak season in October and November but is mostly —thankfully — in rest-and-recharge mode by the time Christmas itself rolls around.

“We try to get all of the trees out by the end of November, because most people like to buy their Christmas tree right after Thanksgiving,” Dodde said. “So we try to get all of our trees out and into the stores and to our Christmas tree lot customers by Thanksgiving. [By early December], we're just kind of finishing up our shipping, with just a few more loads that need to go out.”

Selling to tree lots and retailers wasn’t always Dutchman’s M.O. When John Vanderweide planted what would become the farm’s first crop of Christmas trees in 1960, the intention was to sell the trees to consumers directly. Steve Vanderweide, John’s son, went on to sell his dad's trees at the Atlanta (Michigan) Farmers Market in 1972, once they’d had enough time to grow and mature.

Steve was the official founder of Dutchman Tree Farms and continued transporting Michigan-grown Dutchman trees to Atlanta to sell for years. Eventually, Steve had the revelation that the real money was in selling trees wholesale to Christmas tree lots and other retailers. That realization ended Dutchman’s annual pilgrimage to Atlanta — and also set the company up for the massive growth potential that it has realized in the years since.

“I think Steve just realized that he didn't want to be competing with his potential customers [on the wholesale side],” Dodde said. “So we stopped, for the most part, selling the trees ourselves and just really focused on these smaller Christmas tree lots. That's really the base of where our customers came from — it’s the small Christmas tree lots in bigger cities like Chicago and Grand Rapids. [Dutchman Tree Farms] really grew from there, just building relationships.”

Today, Dutchman remains a family-owned-and-operated business. Steve’s nephew and daughter, Joel Hoekwater and Sarah Maciborski, now own the business with their spouses. Dodde notes that Hoekwater even has a grandson working on the farm these days, which brings Dutchman Tree Farms to its fifth generation of family ties.

The company also hasn’t completely abandoned its direct-to-customer roots: In November and December, Dutchman Tree Farms offers a choose-and-cut attraction next door to its main farm in Manton, opening up the farm for locals to stop by, enjoy complimentary hot chocolate and cookies, and fell their own Christmas trees. Wholesale is the farm’s main focus, though, and with trees shipping far and wide — from California to South Florida to New York City — that operation is extensive.

YEAR-ROUND CHRISTMAS ON THE FARM
Christmas-tree commerce on the level that Dutchman Tree Farms does it is a year-round effort. Throughout the year, Dodde says Dutchman has “scouts” who visit different fields and check trees for pests, disease, and other problems. If any such issues come up, that adds to the workload for the farm. Even if they don’t, Dutchman periodically treats its trees with insecticides and herbicides to make sure they aren’t inadvertently spreading pests or diseases to other parts of the country when trees start shipping out for the holidays.

Tree maintenance is also an important step throughout the year, as trimming Christmas trees strategically helps to ensure the perfect conical shape that customers want. Dutchman even has a team whose job it is to go out and tag trees based on their quality or “grade,” with premium trees typically heading to tree lots and slightly lower quality trees going to chain stores.

When harvest time rolls around, it’s an all-hands-on-deck situation. Cutting, hauling, and baling hundreds of thousands of trees — not to mention loading them onto trucks to ship out to customers — is the grand finale to each busy year for Dutchman Tree Farms, as well as the first sign of the holiday season for employees. Other workers busy themselves assembling wreaths, which have become a huge market for Dutchman since they were added to the company’s offerings about a decade ago. Then, once the holidays are over and the New Year is in full swing, Dodde says “the process starts all over.”

A big priority each spring? Replanting to compensate for the many, many trees that were cut down for the previous season’s Christmas rush.

“We plant 1 to 2 trees for every one that we cut down,” Dodde said. “So we harvest a field, then they'll have to grind the stumps down, and then they’ll usually end up doing a cover crop — like alfalfa or corn or wheat — for one year, just to let the soil rest. And then the very next year, there'll be Christmas trees planted there again. And then those Christmas trees will be there from anywhere from 8 to 10 years, before the next harvest.”

In addition to making sure the farm has tree fields at various stages of maturity, to guarantee a big enough harvest crop each year, Dutchman also gets strategic about the tree species it is planting. The farm grows nine different Christmas tree varieties, falling into three categories: firs (Douglas, Balsam, Fraser, Concolor, Grand), pines (Scotch, White), and spruces (Blue, Black Hill). In addition to meeting the demand that customers or sellers might have for different species of trees, the diversification helps insulate tree farms like Dutchman from risk.

“You never know if a bug or a disease might take out your crop,” Dodde said. “If you have biodiversity, you have a bunch of different varieties and [those problems] are less likely to have an effect on your overall sales.”

AN UNUSUAL YEAR
Though much about the holiday season this year is different due to COVID-19, Dodde says one thing hasn’t changed: People still want Christmas trees in their homes.

Dutchman has had to make a few pivots due to the virus: Wreath-making stations have had to be socially distanced, for instance, and sales representatives haven’t been able to make the in-person visits to tree lots that are typically central to the company’s relationship-building. As far as raw sales go, though, Dutchman has had a banner year.

“For the most part, it's been a really good year,” Dodde said. “We’ve found that, historically, people are more likely to buy a Christmas tree in a down economy or during a depression, just because people tend to cling to tradition. So we're seeing an increase in Christmas tree sales this year, for sure.”

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