Wolcyn family, Isanti County
Behind the evergreen trees that adorn our homes during the holiday season are hardworking family farmers – and years of planning.
One of those farm families is the Wolcyn family, MFU members operating a Christmas tree farm and nursery between Cambridge and Princeton on Minnesota Highway 95. Adie Wolcyn, the matriarch of Wolcyn Tree Farms and Nursery, said they have to plan for a market that’s 8-12 years away when they plant their trees. And, like most farmers, they have to optimize growing conditions for the trees.
“People just think we plant them and they grow,” Adie said. “We have to go in and mow or spray weeds, we have to fertilize the trees and we have to shear them. We water them if there’s a drought, and we don’t know when the drought’s going to be.”
The farm has been a labor of love for nearly 50 years now for Adie’s husband Tom Wolcyn, whose parents began the business as a hobby. Tom grew up in St. Paul, and his parents purchased 80 acres of the Isanti County land.
“I started shearing the trees when I was 14,” Tom said. “I sold my first trees when I was 16. I’m 65 now.”
The decades Tom, Adie and their family have spent in the Christmas tree and nursery business have rewarded them with strong relationships with customers and industry friends. Folks visiting the farm can choose and cut their own Balsam Fir or Fraser Fir trees, an experience that earned the Wolcyns a Viewer’s Choice award from WCCO-TV in 2014 as “Best Place to Cut Down Your Own Tree.”
Why Christmas trees?
That was the question Adie asked Tom when they first met on a blind date. Growing up in Wisconsin around friends who were dairy farmers, she had never considered the idea of growing trees.
“The nice thing about trees is that you don’t have to be there all the time, and they stay where they were put,” Adie said. “Plus, when you go inside after working, you smell good.”
Invested early in trees, Tom studied forestry at the University of Minnesota, alongside an athletic career.
“I played baseball for the Gophers in the 1970s,” Tom said. “I was also the head baseball coach at Bethel College for awhile. I had planned to join the staff of the UMN campus Crusade for Christ. I coached at UMN for awhile and led the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, but as I got older and had kids, we had to ratchet up the tree business. So we bought more land. We own 1,200 acres now, which we’ve bought within the last 30 years.”
The athletics interest was passed down to their four sons, Nick, Ben, Clint and Bobby, who all played football at the University of Northwestern. Nick, Ben and Bobby all work on the farm now, while Clint, who lives in Savage, helps out when needed and runs a retail tree lot in Northfield. Tom and Adie also have four daughters-in-law and eight grandchildren.
The regional reach of the Wolcyn business has multiplied as well. Tom sold trees just in St. Paul. Now the family has retail lots at the St. Paul Farmers Market, Northfield and Fargo. They also sell trees for retail at the main farm, in addition to the choose-and-cut. But those are far from the only places you can find their trees.
“The retail is the part of the business that most people know us by, but it’s definitely not the part of the business that consumes most of our time and energy. Most of it is consumed by the wholesale side of the business,” said Nick.
The Wolcyns have developed longtime customer relationships in their wholesale business, with groups such as the UMN Forestry Club, which has bought their trees for 50 years and sell them on campus. Tom said 80 percent of trees go to customers they’ve worked with for more than 25 years.
Harvesting and shipping the trees mostly takes place during October and November, after nursery season winds down. Tom said they ship about 20,000 trees in ten days during that period.
“The biggest problem is getting good workers,” Tom said. “We’re fortunate we got some really good ones, but we could always use more during the peak season. We’ve mechanized more too.”
Mechanization is especially useful when it comes to deal with the biggest, heaviest trees. The Wolcyns grow their biggest trees, which are used in buildings such as churches and those with vaulted ceilings, at their flagship location. Most of their acres are within three miles of the main farm in Cambridge.
If a big tree is too big to sell, not all is lost – its boughs can be used for wreaths and other decorations.
“We ship more than 150,000 pounds of boughs each year,” Tom said. “It gives us a secondary market.”
Some of those boughs end up at big stores like Fleet Farm and Costco, or get made into wreaths on the farm.
The nursery business side has expanded quite a bit as well, with consumer demand for deciduous ornamental trees, shade trees and fruit trees. It keeps them active beyond the season of Christmas trees.
“Christmas trees are actually only 30 percent of our gross sales now,” Tom said.
The Wolcyns keep about 30-40 employees during the spring through the fall, until Christmas tree harvest and shipping are complete, and about five through the winter.
As the Wolcyns have developed long-term relationships with customers, they’ve also developed relationships with others in agriculture. That’s why being a part of MFU and other advocacy groups is important to them.
“It’s so important to know everyone in the business, and even in other businesses, because you don’t know when they’re going to need you or you’re going to need them,” Adie said.
Adie said she heard about our organization because of the agritourism liability signs we distribute, which explain to people touring farms of the inherent risks of being on a farm. The family realized they should be part of the group, too.
They’re also members of Minnesota Grown, the Minnesota Christmas Tree Association and the Minnesota Nursery and Landscape Association. They’ve found that in their industry, the relationships between producers are cooperative, not cutthroat competitive.
“We don’t think of other Christmas tree growers as competitors,” Adie said. “We think of them as friends.”