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Michigan Christmas tree farms hope more keep it real

Greg Tasker
The Detroit News

In four decades of growing Christmas trees on a 1,000-acre farm about 70 miles northwest of Lansing, Rex Korson and his family have endured the ups and downs of a business that sometimes seems as fragile as a pine needle.

Evan Vida, 9, of Bloomfield Hills and his sister, Magan, 5, look for the perfect tree last week at Korson’s Tree Farms in Auburn Hills. Michigan growers harvest about 2 million trees annually.

There have been droughts. Fluctuating prices. Concerns about finding and keeping farm hands in a labor-intensive business. And, of course, ever-shifting consumer tastes: The once-dominant Scotch pine has been replaced as the holiday tree of choice by the more fragrant Fraser fir. And then there’s the decades-long competition from the artificial tree.

But Korson, one of the largest Christmas tree wholesalers in Michigan, says he’s noticed a welcome dynamic among customers perusing choose-and-cut farms and tree-packed retail lots this season.

“I’m seeing a few more younger families on the lot this year,” says Korson, whose family also runs a retail tree lot in Auburn Hills. “I’ve talked to other wholesale growers with retail consumers and they’re seeing the same thing. It seems like more younger families have been on the lots than in the past and that’s having an impact.”

That sparkle in the eyes of Christmas tree growers comes as a new national marketing campaign aims to introduce younger generations to the beauty of farm-grown trees. Dubbed “It’s Christmas. Keep it real,” the promotion includes a 2-minute-plus video that features nostalgic clips of families opening presents, eating dinner and other festivities amid real trees.

With a focus squarely on millennials, the campaign by the Christmas Tree Promotion Board is being marketed on social media, including Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Yelp. This national effort to bolster the live tree industry also plays on the millennial quest for authentic experiences and the generation’s passion for all things local.

“We want people to consider a real tree,” said Marsha Gray, executive director of the Michigan Christmas Tree Association. “We’re trying to focus on young families. They’re looking for authentic and very real experiences. So many young people have grown up without a live tree. We want to remind them of the real joy a real tree brings.”

Some 25.9 million farm-grown trees were sold in the U.S. last year, down from 33.02 million in 2013. Consumers spend about $1 billion annually to purchase live trees. Sales of artificial trees also dropped in 2015, to 12.5 million from 14.7 million in 2013. Still, more consumers are displaying fake trees than real trees in their homes, industry officials said, noting most people use fake trees multiple times.

Nationally, Michigan ranks third in the production of Christmas trees, behind Oregon and North Carolina. Christmas trees are farmed in every Michigan county, with the bulk of plantings around Cadillac and Lake City in northern Michigan, and in the Allegan and Greenville areas in western Michigan. Choose-and-cut farms can be found in every county, as well.

Michigan tree growers say the industry has stabilized in recent years, despite a decline in harvests and the number of acres devoted to Christmas trees. Michigan growers harvest about 2 million trees annually — valued at about $45 million wholesale — down from about 4 million two decades ago. Federal figures show land devoted to growing Christmas trees fell from 60,520 acres in 2002 to 37,908 in 2012. Industry officials attribute much of the decline to attrition, farmers retiring and families no longer wanting to maintain the business.

“Those who are still in the business are seeing some good years,” Gray said.

And that includes this holiday decorating season.

“Sales have been really strong,” said Korson, who supplies garden centers, independent retailers and service groups. “Most of our sales came in early and have been very strong. We’ve pretty much sold out of our inventory on the wholesale side. Retail sales have been on par with where they were last year.”

Sales of Christmas trees, roping and wreaths have also been good at the family-run Candy Cane Christmas Tree Farm near Oxford in northern Oakland County.

Eric Baker, 14, of Leonard cuts his Christmas tree at Candy Cane Christmas Tree Farm in Oxford, which is reporting healthy sales.

Part of the experience for customers who visit the 17-acre farm to choose from a variety of firs, including Fraser, concolor and the exotic Korean, is a visit with Santa and hot chocolate.

“From what I’ve heard everyone seems to be having a good season. We’re close to the Detroit area so we tend to be quite busy,” said Cathy Genovese, who runs the farm with her husband, Frank. The couple began growing trees in 1977. “We’ve seen a strong market in this area. We have seen a few farms close down over the years so that impacts those of us that are still open.”

As the “It’s Christmas. Keep it real” campaign fires up for the season, Genovese also has seen an uptick in choose-and-cut sales to millennials.

“I’m seeing a trend in a lot of young people coming to the farm to make their own traditions,” Genovese said. “They want the real product as opposed to the artificial tree. They want the full of experience of choosing and cutting down a tree, instead of just going to the basement and pulling something out of a box.”

“I think people want to get back to nature,” she added. “The more technological we become, the more we want to get back to nature in other parts of our lives.”

Greg Tasker is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.