- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 2, 2015

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) - Patience is a virtue. Particularly if you run a Christmas tree farm. Kirt Helsel’s crop grows an average of eight years before he can harvest it. That’s a long time to wait for payout, but he says the investment in time is worth the reward.

“It’s like dairy farming - you’ve got to love it to do it,” he told the Traverse City Record-Eagle ( https://bit.ly/1IvhE2P ). “You put some hours in.”

Helsel runs Messiah’s Tree Farm just down the road from the Grass River Natural Area.

He harvests between 10,000 and 20,000 trees each autumn. He runs a total of 300 acres in Antrim, Kalkaska and Missaukee counties. He rotates production on his various fields so he has trees ready for each holiday season.

Helsel said it is impossible to predict demand years ahead. With an eight-to-10-year growing schedule, it just doesn’t pay to plant more seedlings than he knows he can sell. He keeps his production relatively steady, at a level he is comfortable with.



He sells Christmas trees at retail prices at his farm and at seasonal lots in Gaylord and Grayling. Prices range from $25 for a 3- to 4-foot tree to $100 for a 10- to 12-foot tree. It takes about 12 years to grow a 10-foot tree, he said. He also sells trees to dealers at wholesale prices.

U.S. farmers currently have about 350 million trees in the ground at different stages of development, according to the Michigan Christmas Tree Association. U.S. consumers bought 26.3 million live Christmas trees in 2014 at an average price of $39.50 each - for a total value of $1.04 billion, the National Christmas Tree Association said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service said the top Christmas tree producing states are Oregon, North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Washington.

Helsel has been a professional tree farmer for 35 years. He has learned that local topography - which way a particular field slopes, what surrounds it and where it is located among his holdings - plays a pivotal role in tree health.

He used to grow a lot of Scotch pines. But they suffered from a variety of health issues that hurt production figures. Today he concentrates on Fraser fir. They seem to do better in northwest Michigan soils and provide him with more income per acre.

“That’s something learned from years of doing it - that’s your education right there,” said Helsel.

Helsel plants sorghum in his fields after a crop of trees is harvested. The crop stabilizes the soil. He plows the sorghum back in to act as a natural fertilizer. He plants new trees after a field has had two years of rest.

Messiah’s employs five workers during each fall harvest season. Helsel keeps three workers busy from spring until fall. Pruning the trees forces them to develop more small branches, resulting in a fuller, greener holiday decoration. The farm also sells live, root-bagged trees to nurseries throughout the region.

Helsel, 53, said he relaxes between January and March, and does maintenance work on the farm’s machinery.

Trucks pick up harvested trees each autumn and carry them to Texas, Florida and other states. Helsel said he has developed a network of tree lot operators who respect the healthy trees he provides. His network is composed mostly of mom-and-pop operators.

“That’s most of my business - the small guys who don’t compete with Lowe’s and Home Depot,” he said.

Helsel graduated from Lake City High School in 1980. Many members of his family run Christmas tree farms in the Lake City area. He decided to pursue the same business, but in a different location. He opened Messiah’s Tree Farm in 1982.

“I liked it here,” he said of the area between Alden and Mancelona.

He established Messiah’s Tree Farm - named for the spirit behind the Christmas season - and hasn’t looked back. He has two children. His younger son, 13, helps on the farm. His older son manages a business near Toronto that sells Christmas trees raised by Helsel.

Helsel has considered raising other crops in addition to Christmas trees. But he decided the business complications, additional required equipment and extra demands on time just weren’t worth the possible added income.

The Messiah’s Tree Farm field that fronts Alden Highway stands bare this fall. Helsel plans to convert the large patch of freshly plowed dirt into a “choose and cut” selection of Christmas trees. He envisions hot cider and a Santa Claus to help families make an event out of cutting their own Christmas tree. But it will be a few years before those yet-to-be-planted trees reach maturity. Helsel is patient.

A partial listing of Christmas tree vendors in the state is hosted by the Michigan Christmas Tree Association at www.mcta.org.

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Information from: Traverse City Record-Eagle, https://www.record-eagle.com

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