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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Like your Christmas tree? Thank your farmer. They’re likely far from home

Reeves Box next to tree
Reeves Box, 43, of Cadillac, is part of an extended family from northern Michigan that spends their holidays in parking lots nationwide selling Christmas trees. It’s a labor of love, he says.(Bridge photo by Mike Wilkinson)

If you still haven’t bought a Christmas tree yet, you can probably forget the trip to the local tree lot — the trees and the workers may be gone.

But bad news for you may be good news for a cadre of itinerant tree farmers from northern Michigan who may be able to enjoy the holiday season with their families for the first time in years.

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Every year, dozens of Michigan tree farmers fan out across the country to sell the trees, missing Thanksgiving and most of the holiday season as they set up shop to sell their wares from Ohio and Illinois to Oklahoma and Florida. 

    Hailing from towns near Cadillac, Manton and Lake City, most do not usually return home until a few days before Christmas. 

    But this year, reports of a tree shortage caused by labor and supply chain issues prompted an early run on trees, cleaning out lots that typically stayed open until Dec. 20.

    Reeves Box sold over 700 trees in a swimming pool parking lot in Toledo in about three weeks, a surprisingly short season which will give him a chance to get home early this year. He’ll bring more trees next year, he said.

    Reeves Box
    Reeves Box has made friends across metro Toledo over the years, selling trees and at times delivering them and setting them up in homes. Here, he helps bring a huge tree into a family home. (Courtesy photo)

    Now, he’ll get to bask in the glow of his own tree’s twinkling lights. What’s the first thing Box will do after being away so long? 

    “Hug my mom,” said Box, 43, of Cadillac.

    Related:

    Michigan is the nation’s No. 3 producer of Christmas trees, selling more than 1.5 million across the country every year. Hundreds of thousands are raised, pruned, cut and sold to big operations all over the United States.

    But many growers, with sprawling farms in Wexford, Missaukee and Kalkaska counties, cut out the middleman and make annual pilgrimages to stripmall parking lots across the country.

     

    They live alone — sometimes bringing their young children —  either in hotels or local apartments. Some stay in small buildings or campers parked in the tree lot.

    Missing the holiday season is part of the life.

    “You get used to it: You’re a Christmas tree farmer,” said Kolby Helsel, 30, of Lake City who sold trees from a dormant ice-cream shop parking lot about 3 miles from Box in Toledo and was joined by his homeschooled son, Wayne, 9.

    In northern Michigan, the Helsel family and others have been growing trees for decades and it’s become a family business. While Box was selling trees for Kolby’s uncle, Charlie Helsel, another bench of the Helsel family was selling trees across from a Waffle House in nearby Sylvania Township.

    Kolby’s dad was in Springfield, Illinois., selling trees, while others were set up in  Florida, he told Bridge Michigan.

    christmas tree
    For over 20 years, the Helsel family has sold Christmas trees in the parking lot of an ice cream stand at a busy intersection in Toledo. Other relatives sell trees in other parts of the region. (Courtesy photo)

    Travis Wiggins, 35, is another northern Michigan tree farmer who spent the season in Oklahoma City, selling trees on the same lot where his father started selling them in 1975. 

    Like the others, Wiggins left family back in Michigan, a wife and three kids. 

    He said he can’t remember the last time he was home for Thanksgiving. 

    The business “has been good to us. It has its ups and downs.”

    The “downs” are the long days and the nights away from home. But when your product has a shelf-life of just a few weeks — most trees are at the curb or cut up by early January — you have to make sacrifices.

    “It’s a tough lifestyle,” said Amy Start, executive director of the Michigan Christmas Tree Association. “They have to give up a lot of their holiday time. They can put their feet up on Dec. 26.”

    Most Michigan trees are sold to bigger retailers, said Jill O’Donnell, a retired Michigan State University extension officer who specialized in Christmas trees. 

    She said 10 to 20 percent of growers have their own lots.

    In doing so, they get to reap more of the reward — tree costs rose this year along with labor and fuel costs. And they make connections.

    Box, a tree evangelist who’s made videos on tree care, glowed as he talked about the joy of sharing the holiday experience each night with people looking for that perfect tree, sometimes delivering it to their homes and helping them put it up.

    “I share the celebration of Christmas with 1,000 people a year,” Box said as he tended the last seven trees on his lot. 

    “That’s so beautiful to me.”

    Kolby Helsel and Box said they’ve made long-term connections with people from their repeated trips to Toledo. 

    People bring them food (including Thanksgiving dinner) and gifts.

    “People are good to us,” Helsel said.

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    Box sells health insurance most of the year but starting around Thanksgiving, he could sell Christmas trees to anyone. 

    He’ll show you how to cut it, make it straight, keep it alive. Although his lot was nearly void of trees on a recent Thursday evening, he said it was never just about the trees.

    Box said he plans to make more videos, sharing knowledge he started acquiring when he was first pruning trees at 13 with a machete (10 cents a tree, he said). He hopes to see many of the same people next year — and the year after.

    “It’s family,” he said. “I have a family of all these people I deliver for.”

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