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'Tis the season for tree farmers

| Monday, Dec. 20, 2004

Phyllis Grebe thought it was a bunch of hooey the first time she heard her Wisconsin hometown called "The Christmas Tree Capital of the World."

The vice president of the Waushara County Historical Society, Grebe is uncertain when Wautoma, Wis., claimed the title. It's a piece of trivia she and other Wautoma historians are researching as they plan the town's 2005 sesquicentennial celebration.

"When I was a kid growing up, I don't think it was the Christmas tree capital of anything," Grebe said. "I think somebody got a little carried away."

Wautoma• The Christmas Tree Capital of the World• Says who?

The declaration might ruffle some feathers in southwestern Pennsylvania, where Indiana County has been regarded as the rightful Christmas Tree Capital of the World for two generations.

Christmas tree farming began here in 1918, and by 1960 more than 200 growers were selling in excess of 1 million trees annually, the Indiana County Christmas Tree Growers Association contends.

The volume has declined in recent decades, though. In 2002, Indiana County growers cut 149,896 Christmas trees -- a countywide harvest that ranks 20th in the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Indiana County still advertises its claim on billboards and in state and county marketing promotions because of its role in building the industry. Meanwhile, Wautoma and other spots in Oregon, North Carolina and Michigan have adopted the Christmas Tree Capital name to highlight their success with seasonal evergreen sales.

No community, it seems, can lay clear claim to being the Christmas Tree Capital of the World. Not even the National Christmas Tree Association, a St. Louis-based professional trade group that annually selects the official White House Christmas tree, goes out on a limb to designate a frontrunner.

At least the bay town of Franklin, Maine -- with 1,370 residents -- took itself out of the running in 1998. When its welcome sign became weathered, the town didn't have enough money in its budget to retain the claim made in 1975 on a new sign, clerk Bob Fernald said.

Strength in numbers

Oregon undoubtedly has taken the lead in Christmas tree production.

In the 2002 USDA agricultural census, featuring the first county-by-county survey on Christmas tree harvests, Oregon farmers reported a total harvest of 6.46 million evergreens. Three Oregon counties shipped more than 1 million trees apiece, but Clackamas County had the nation's largest harvest: 2.59 million.

Clackamas County is the home of Estacada, another self-designated Christmas Tree Capital of the World.

Three other self-styled Christmas tree capitals are among the nation's top seven counties. Avery County, N.C., which produces blue-green Fraser firs, reported a harvest of 848,113. Farmers in Missaukee County, Mich., cut 654,011 trees. And Waushara County, the home of Phyllis Grebe, announced a harvest of 641,921.

Tourism and agricultural officials in Oregon don't know how long Estacada has called itself the capital. Bryan Ostlund, the executive secretary for the Salem-based Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association, said he was unaware that Estacada even claimed the title.

Ostlund said Oregon farmers likely were hauling Christmas trees for out-of-state sales by horse and wagon at the turn of the 20th century. It's now the sixth-largest agricultural industry in the Beaver State, and officials purport their crop covers 31 percent of the market.

More than 6.7 million trees, valued at $113 million, were shipped in 2003, according to figures Oregon announced this summer.

Economy and identity

All 50 states report contributions to the total U.S. sale of about 25 million trees annually, but the crop has become an integral part of some areas' personality.

For example, Christmas-tree farming emerged as a viable industry in Missaukee County, Mich., in the 1960s and 1970s, said Kim Mosher, the administrative assistant for the Lake City Area Chamber of Commerce. Lake City, the 920-resident county seat, celebrates its self-proclaimed status as the Christmas Tree Capital during the Festival of the Pines in September.

Lake City is the hub of a five-county region where Christmas trees are grown, but Mosher said Missaukee and Wexford counties together could stake a claim for capital status. Those two counties combined for the harvest of 1.01 million trees in 2002.

In Wisconsin, Wautoma also incorporates Christmas trees into its identity. A tree is featured on the city's stationery and on the water tower that was installed with a new water system in 1995, city clerk Russ Nero said.

A welcome sign in Wautoma also refers to the title -- but so do billboards in Avery County, N.C., home to about 18,000 residents. There the Christmas tree industry translates to about $24 million in income for the county's growers, said Jerry Moody, the county agent for the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service.

However, Avery's harvest was overshadowed in 2002 by another North Carolina county, Ashe, whose farmers cut 28,081 more trees.

A local legacy

Indiana County remains the state's Christmas tree leader, reporting the most acres in production -- 3,581 -- and the largest harvest. Ninety-one Indiana County farms had at least $1,000 in evergreen sales.

As coal mining dwindled in the 20th century, farmers found some land was inadequate for conventional crops but suitable for growing evergreens, according to the county growers association. The industry developed through the experimentation and innovation of growers such as Fred Musser Sr., Silas Streams, Murray Stewart, Sam Dible and Walter Schroth.

It was Musser who first became known nationwide. He bought 600 acres in 1928, and by 1952 his work had attracted Fortune magazine to the region for an article about the industry. The magazine gave Indiana County its now-familiar, unofficial title.

"Anybody can call themselves whatever they want, but we were the capital first," said Gregg Van Horn, president of the 20-plus member county growers group.

That's the feeling among several proud growers, the president of the county's chamber of commerce and many lifelong residents. Indiana County Commissioner Rodney Ruddock said the title arouses thoughts of a wholesome community that believes strongly in American values.

"I think Indiana County should gain from that because we are that kind of community," Ruddock said.

In 2000, the Indiana County Tourist Bureau created new slogans, "It's a Wonderful Life in Indiana County" and "Christmas Capital USA," but the claim of "Christmas Tree Capital of the World" has survived. The "Wonderful Life" promotion seizes upon the county's other holiday connection -- the classic Christmas film "It's a Wonderful Life," which features Indiana native Jimmy Stewart.

Because it requires a lot of hand labor, Christmas-tree farming is just as arduous as other agricultural industries. A third-generation grower, Dave Johnston, who operates Johnston Nurseries, in Creekside, said his father, Beryl, "more or less" invented a Christmas tree bailer.

The cultivation techniques developed here are one reason Johnston said Indiana County's claim of being the capital is "indisputable."

Seasonal evergreen farming has become a tradition as much for the grower as for the customer. Van Horn, 40, has been involved in tree harvests since age 6, when he helped his father, Joe.

Nowadays, Van Horn sells between 300 and 400 trees a year at his Creekside farm.

"You raise it from a seedling, and you send it off," he said. "I guess it's the completion of your work -- 10 to 12 years of work -- that you're making somebody happy at Christmas time."

Best sellers

Indiana County ranks 20th in the nation for the number of Christmas trees cut during a harvest, according to a USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service report in 2002. Seven states had at least one county that cut more trees than the harvest reported by 91 Indiana County farms that year. The survey is done every five years.

1. Clackamas County, Ore.: 2.59 million

2. Benton County, Ore.: 1.4 million

3. Marion County, Ore.: 1.03 million

4. Ashe County, N.C.: 876,194

5. Avery County, N.C.: 848,113

6. Missaukee County, Mich.: 654,011

7. Waushara County, Wis.: 641,921

8. Alleghany County, N.C.: 427,954

9. Lewis County, Wash.: 412,225

10. Wexford County, Mich.: 365,184

11. Jackson County, Wis.: 255,898

12. Washington County, Ore.: 253,695

13. Oceana County, Mich.: 220,566

14. Montcalm County, Mich.: 213,350

15. Jackson County, N.C.: 202,752

16. Grayson County, Va.: 190,895

17. Pine County, Minn.: 171,617

18. Watauga County, N.C.: 166,846

19. Lane County, Ore.: 151,897

20. Indiana County, Pa.: 149,896

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