Sprucing Up for the Holidays

Bill Summers and his wife spend 48 weeks a year preparing Summers' Christmas Tree Farm for the holidays, and four harried weeks reaping the benefits. "It's a steady and fun business," Summers says, "but we'll never get rich doing it."

Summers' life is in these fields, on the land his parents first purchased in 1949, the year he was born. Running the tree farm is a 365-day labor of love involving clearing fields, tree planting and maintenance, and building and machinery upkeep. It also affords him an endless connection with nature. "I think a lot out here," the 62-year-old smiles, gazing out over the 200 rolling and picturesque acres. "It's amazing how many intelligent conversations you can have with yourself. There's always someone who agrees with you."

The quiet that greets us this day will soon be replaced by the annual Christmas tree rush that generates a year's worth of income for Summers, wife Judy, and his 93-year-old mother. "I love working out here," he says. "I grew up with this."

When the season opens on Black Friday, green begins pouring in. A part-time crew of about 18 high school and college-age employees will greet the arriving throng. "That first morning, as long as people come up the driveway, I'm happy," Summers says.

Summers earned a bachelor's degree in business administration from UW-Madison during the tumultuous 1970s, at the height of the Vietnam War protests. After graduation, he dabbled in real estate before the family bought a Middleton floral shop, which his mother ran for 25 years. "Now that's a business that makes this one look really good," Summers remarked. "You learn a lot there. Six days of the year are profitable, the rest of the days you just try to break even."
It prepared him well for his full-time career on the family tree farm, where what he earns in four short weeks sustains the business throughout the year.

Summers' tree farm started small as a cut-and-choose lot, with Summers' parents planting just 500 to 1,000 trees per year until their son joined the operation full time in 1980. It now totals about 72,000 trees, including about 20 different varieties. And though Summers is always looking for the next great Christmas tree, he'll never plant just one species in a year because a problem with a species could put the business at risk.

Despite his careful attention, it's not uncommon to lose about 30% of the trees each year to deer, disease, or bugs. "With spruce and fir, 80% will be saleable," he says. "With Scotch pine, 60%." For that reason, Summers says it takes at least 10 years to start a tree farm. "Guaranteed, the first trees you put in will all die."

Pines are preferable, he says, because although they take longer to mature, they are less susceptible to disease and not as labor-intensive. But sometimes, outside factors influence demand. "Years ago, Martha Stewart said Frasers were the only tree to have, so everyone wanted a Fraser fir," he laughed. "That switched from the Scotch pine." His personal favorite is the balsam, because of its short needles and fragrance.

Each year, Summers purchases between 5,000 and 10,000 young 12-inch to 18-inch trees from established nurseries and uses a machine to transplant them in one-acre fields. Pines, he explained, grow about a foot a year, taking seven or eight good years before they are saleable. Spruce and fir trees take longer, growing only 6 to 10 inches a year after they're established.

Fields are cleared on a rotational basis, and then left for two years before being replanted, which helps eliminate weeds and bugs. Rotating the fields is essential to the tree farm business, something Summers learned the hard way after the business was nearly wiped out in the 1980s. "We sold 10,000 trees, then 8,000, and then we had a year that cut out almost everything we had. We hit a point where we almost had no saleable trees. For two years, I pre-cut enough trees to sell at our flower shop to cover expenses while we waited for our trees to grow. People thought we'd closed, and it took a long time to get our clientele back up."

Three times each summer, Judy mows the fields. "She loves it," he says. "She has a lot of patience." Tree trimming begins in March when Summers goes into the fields, thins out the brush, and lays a minimal amount of fertilizer down to curb the growth of grass. By June, his part-time workers join him in the fields. "We shear the pines with knives to put a shape on the tree," he says. It's what he considers simple, manual labor. He carefully instructs his staff in the art, taking care to cut a branch back to the fork, resulting in a naturally shaped tree that's easy to decorate.

By July, trimming begins on the spruce and fir trees. On this day, Summers says he's "80%" pleased with how his trees look, and those that won't achieve Christmas tree status due to their shape or other issues can be used for boughs and wreaths.

August through October is reserved for maintenance. Fields are cleared of weeds, signs are painted, and roofs and buildings are repaired. "It's not fun, but it has to be done."

November is the tree farm's busiest month, requiring up to 14-hour workdays. "Nothing can be done too far ahead to ensure freshness," Summers explains. While he selects from the oldest trees for pre-cutting and tends to last-minute maintenance, Judy and Simone, the shop manager, ready the gift shop they've been preparing all year and create about 150 wreaths – one of the few tasks that can be done weeks in advance.

Summers has seen the demand for live trees ebb and flow, but this year, he is predicting a good season, despite the economy. "People tend to spend money at Christmastime," he says, hoping for an early snowfall. A 25-degree day with 3 to 4 inches of snow is ideal. "That's fun," he says. "That's when we know we'll be busy." The worst weather, he noted, is sleet and freezing rain, which makes roads treacherous and keeps people at home.

Summers realizes some might think his life is dull. "It's not high-tech. It's not critical or life-changing. It's just what we do. On the other hand, I don't have to take a vacation to go to the woods somewhere to enjoy nature."

Retirement is far from his mind. "I've got nothing to retire from. I'll never move to a warmer climate. I enjoy cold and snow." With no children to leave the business to, the majority of the Summers' land will one day go to the Natural Heritage Land Trust.

Each Christmas Eve at 5 p.m., the four-week holiday rush ends abruptly when Summers takes down the road signs and locks the gate. "Then the three of us have a little buffet dinner and champagne and call it a night," he said.

"On December 26th, I sometimes wake up and wonder, 'What the hell do I do today?'"

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