A ‘happy business’

Oconto farmer will provide this year’s White House Christmas tree

Posted on Oct 3, 2016 :: Small Business Spotlight
Sharon Verbeten
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

When you’re in the Christmas tree business, it might seem like every day is a holiday.

Then you remember that, much like the holiday itself, your paycheck comes only once a year.

But that’s something Dave VanderVelden of Whispering Pines Tree Farm in Oconto has gotten used to in the more than 30 years he’s been growing balsam and Fraser firs, as well as other coniferous trees. This year, in addition to anticipating great winter sales, he also is looking forward to the ultimate present: supplying the White House with its official Blue Room Christmas tree.

“The national tree contest is the Super Bowl for Christmas trees,” says VanderVelden, who started Whispering Pines with his father in 1988 with just 16 acres and a garden tractor. “The competition is very intense; my dad Jerry and I spent a lot of time making sure the tree looked its best.”

This year, a 20-foot Fraser fir/Veitch tree, planted in 1999, will travel to Washington to bedeck the halls of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. after White House staff come to view the tree this fall. In November, VanderVelden, along with his wife, father and sister-in-law, will travel with the tree — hauled by a local trucking company — to the nation’s capital.

VanderVelden, a Green Bay native, has won the state championship four times. But in 2015, he was named First Grand Champion in the national contest sponsored by the National Christmas Tree Association.

“You have to be really good at your craft just to be eligible to enter the national contest, let alone win it,” says NCTA President Blake Rafeld.

Following his ‘goofy’ dream

It may have been considered bad luck when VanderVelden discovered the soil in Door County was poor for growing Christmas trees. In 1984, he initially started his tree farm in Brussels, but the soil’s pH level wasn’t quite right.

Undeterred, VanderVelden, a lifetime machinist with a penchant for horticulture, relocated to Oconto, where he found the limestone-rich soil ideal for his crop — which now spans 200 acres on three farms. He plants 15,000 to 20,000 trees each year and has about 160,000 trees of all levels of maturity on his property.

But starting the farm was not a slam-dunk proposition. Banks were hesitant to fund a twenty-something’s plant-based start-up. In addition, trees take eight to 10 years to mature, so the business wouldn’t start reaping profits for at least a decade.

So without a written business plan, bank loan or much horticulture experience, VanderVelden ran headfirst into his “goofy dream,” fueled by his passion for pines and funded by his own savings.

“For the first 10 years, I didn’t get paid,” he says. “In the meantime, I planted seven years’ worth of trees. If you would have told me how much work it was, I wouldn’t have done it.”

He initially thought his tree farm might be “something to fall back on,” so VanderVelden continued working as a machinist while working his farm and continuing to do research on the business. He joined the Wisconsin Christmas Tree Producers Association, took some horticulture classes at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College and continued planting trees.

By the time his cut-your-own tree farm began selling mature trees, about 1996, VanderVelden had modest expectations. “When I first started, I thought I’d sell 300 trees; I sold 700,” he says.

Today, while VanderVelden doesn’t divulge how many trees he now sells per season, he admits sales go up every year and his business jumps from about two full-time employees most of the year to about 60 in his busy season. He also operates two satellite cut-tree retail sites in Allouez.

While the season typically begins on Black Friday, “People are putting up trees earlier,” VanderVelden says.

And he’s always looking ahead. “You try to determine how many trees you will need eight to 10 years from now,” he says, while noting the painful, but realistic, fact about being a Christmas tree farmer. “You work all year, but get paid once a year.”

That means making the most out of his short season. For VanderVelden, that’s more than trees. He calls his enterprise “agri-tainment,” where the farm is enhanced with a filled-to-the-rafters holiday gift shop, Santa photo-op, horse-drawn wagon rides, talking “reindeer,” train rides and live alpacas — all complete with steaming mugs of hot cocoa.

VanderVelden has learned a lot in his three decades in the business. But his most important lesson has nothing to do with soil science. He says he learned it from his father, who ran his own successful septic business for years. He told VanderVelden, “Don’t worry about making money; make people happy.”

For VanderVelden, whose livelihood relies on happy holiday memories, it hasn’t been too difficult to do both.