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Late Thanksgiving has tree sellers shifting plans

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CARLTON — Jim Whorton, owner of Chub Lake Tree Farm, broke with tradition this weekend.

“We’ve been opening on the Friday after Thanksgiving for 30 years now. But not this year,” he said.

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With Thanksgiving landing unusually late on Nov. 28 this year, Whorton said: “I couldn’t wait that long.”

The cut-your-own tree farm on Carlton’s southern outskirts opened for business on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, but traffic was light.

Keith Miernicki, owner of Saginaw Trees & Wreaths, about 20 miles west of Duluth, did the same, figuring four weekends of sales before Christmas wouldn’t cut it, so to speak. He reported selling several trees over the weekend but nothing on a par with what he usually sees on a normal, post-Thanksgiving opening.

Tree operations across the state have split on the question of how best to handle the late arrival of this year’s turkey day.

Doug Hoffbauer, who sells trees in both Duluth and Superior with the help of his wife, Lois, said they began selling wreaths, garlands and other decorations early this year but chose to hold off going full-bore too early.

“I don’t see much interest in trees quite yet,” he said. “Thanksgiving is enough of an event already. I think people want to get through one holiday before they start work on the next one.”

Hoffbauer said that few people who plan to host a large Thanksgiving gathering want to add setting up and decorating a Christmas tree to their list of chores this week. And anyone traveling out of town to spend the holiday with family would be unwise to leave a thirsty, freshly cut tree untended and potentially in need of water.

Instead of trying to rush the season, Hoffbauer said he’ll begin peddling his trees this Friday, as is his custom. He’s bracing for a mad rush, however, given the compressed timeline leading up to Christmas this year.

Miernicki also anticipates a crazy lead-up to Christmas.

“This place will look like an anthill two weeks before Christmas,” he predicted.

Whorton said he figured he had little to lose by opening his tree farm early this year and providing his customers with more of an opportunity to get ready for the fast-approaching holiday.

“We were going to be here anyway. It just meant getting prepared a little earlier,” he said.

It typically takes seven to 10 days of setup for Whorton and his team to prepare for opening day. He figures his customers now cut about three of every five trees he sells. Whorton used to sell primarily pre-cut trees but has been shifting to a cut-your-own model in recent years.

“My wife and I are 70 years old now, and we’ve been gradually training more and more people to do our work for us,” he joked.

Jim and Bev Whorton have about 7,500 trees planted on their farm and harvest about 500 each winter. Each spring they plant 3- to 5-year-old seedlings, and typically they’re ready to be sold after another 12 to 15 years of growth and grooming.

Most of their business comes from repeat customers, and Jim said many families have been buying trees from him for two or even three generations now.

The holiday crept up on Barb Solem, owner of Northland Wreaths, who sells winter decor wholesale from her workshop in Culver.

“Generally, we make our deliveries the week of Thanksgiving. I thought I had an extra week this year, but most of my customers wanted to take deliveries between Nov. 15 and 22 this year,” she said, explaining that she and her crew of about a half-dozen helpers really had to scramble to fulfill this year’s orders.

Hoffbauer noted that the nation’s demand for holiday greenery has significantly helped the regional economy.

“It has become a good cottage industry for the Northland. Wreath-making and the like brings money and valuable seasonal jobs to our area,” he said.

Hoffbauer expressed concern that the movement of gypsy moths into the region could threaten some of that activity.

“I’m worried that some markets might not take our product any more if they’re overly concerned about the potential transfer of gypsy moths,” he said.

Hoffbauer said he hopes the Minnesota Department of Agriculture will work with people in the industry to address any concerns and ensure trees, wreaths and garlands sold for holiday decor are gypsy moth-free in the future.

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