Growing through diversification
by Sally Colby
Trees are a serious business for the Wolcyn family of Cambridge, MN.
Nick Wolcyn’s grandfather started with an 80-acre property and operated it as a hobby Christmas tree farm. Nick’s father Tom turned the hobby into a business 50 years ago, and the family has since been growing trees full-time.
“We started out with only Christmas trees,” said Nick. “We had Norway pines in the 1960s and 1970s and started choose-and-cut in the early 1990s. It was originally a wholesale business – we sold trees in the St. Paul area.”
Nick described his father’s idea of creating a larger-scale operation: “He had a vision for doing it full-time. The next step was the B&B and landscape trees, mostly spruce and pine. Then he started growing balsam and Fraser fir for Christmas trees.”
Today, the Wolcyn family grows a variety of trees on more than 1,000 acres. The soil varies among growing sites, with some sandy loam and some lighter soil which Nick said is good for growing conifers, especially firs, but irrigation is necessary.
“We planted about 70,000 fir trees this year,” said Nick, adding that he prefers to plant large blocks rather than interplant. “Last year we planted on three farms. This year we jumped around different fields based on last year’s harvest. We had some smaller pieces to replant which made it hectic for irrigating this spring.”
Drip irrigation is in place on several farms, although gopher damage to lines has been an issue. “On one 80-acre farm, the drip irrigation on about half of it worked great for the first few years,” said Nick. “Now we roll out the drip irrigation for the first couple of years after planting, then take it up after trees are established. All the other farms are irrigated with traveling guns.”
As they expanded, the Wolcyns added landscaping trees as well as container-grown trees in the nursery. The nursery features spruce up to four feet and a variety of deciduous trees up to 12 feet. “It started as wholesale, but my dad realized there was a lot of local interest,” said Nick. “We went from wholesale-only to retail sales. In our area, there weren’t a lot of landscapers who wanted to plant trees, so installations have really picked up over the past several years. Fruit tree sales have also increased over the last year and a half. People are spending more time at home and want to grow their own fruit.”
When customers visit Wolcyn Tree Farm and Nursery to select fruit trees, most have an idea of what kind of fruit they want to grow but are unfamiliar with variety options. “Historically, we’ve sold a lot of apple trees,” said Nick. “This year, because there’s been a shortage of fruit trees around the Twin Cities, we had a lot of requests for pear, plum, cherry and apricot trees. In a normal year we’d sell 10 apple trees for every pear or plum tree. This year there are more requests for other fruit.”
Fruit trees are available in both containers and as bare root. “Bare root is popular in early spring,” said Nick. “We take orders through winter and store trees in our cooler. This year, if people didn’t get their order in by early April, some stock was sold out. It was a scramble on our end – we aren’t used to selling out before we start distributing but that happened with a number of species this year.” The Wolcyn staff takes time to explain the benefits of semi-dwarfing rootstock to customers.
Customers who purchase apple trees are most likely to choose Honeycrisp. “Everyone loves Honeycrisp, and it’s hard to talk people out of it,” said Nick. “I tell people to temper their expectations with it because it takes longer to bear fruit and isn’t problem-free.”
After homeowners lost trees due to Imprelis herbicide damage, the Wolcyns noticed an increased demand for spaded trees. “We invested in a spade truck, and that helped us sell bigger trees,” said Nick. “Before we had the truck, we didn’t have the equipment to move large trees. We have large spruce, white pine, maples, lindens and oaks ranging from 15 to 20 feet. They have good root systems that hold up to moving.” Nick added that they move a lot of spaded trees in both spring and autumn.
When customers request landscape planning for windbreaks, Wolcyn staff ask about the potential for deer damage. “Deer destroy arborvitae,” said Nick. “We need to know long needle versus short for evergreens, how dense a screen. It usually boils down to about four options: Norway spruce, black hills spruce, Meyer spruce, white pine.”
Although some customers request native species, Nick said some natives don’t grow as well as others. “We get requests for various natives including red pine, balsam fir, tamarack and white spruce,” he said. “White spruce is native to Minnesota, but they winter-burn badly the first year or two in the ground. Black hills spruce is a type of white spruce native to South Dakota and doesn’t winter-burn as badly. Norway spruce is sometimes considered native.”
The Wolcyn’s Christmas tree business is thriving, and begins each season with cutting, loading and shipping trees for wholesale. “We changed the opening dates two years ago to accommodate a later Thanksgiving date,” said Nick. “We’re open the weekend prior to Thanksgiving, then daily after Thanksgiving.” They don’t see a lot of customers prior to Thanksgiving, but early sales gives them a chance to work out the kinks before the busy season begins.
Customers can take a hayrides to the field, which Nick said is popular. While three tractors with wagons is often sufficient, they operate five on the first weekend. Prior to COVID-19, customers were not allowed to drive out to the field, but last year, the Wolcyns welcomed customers to drive themselves to the fields to reduce the number of people on the hayride. Nick estimated that about a quarter of customers drove to the field, armed with printed maps to find their way around. “We had to make some of the parking areas wider, but it was worth the extra work and we’ll probably keep that option long-term,” he said. “People driving out to the field also helped space out customers as they returned to the shaking and baling area.”
The Wolcyns are seeing more interest in fresh, real trees. “It isn’t a shortage as much as a tight supply, especially certain species,” said Nick. “People don’t realize how long it takes to grow a tree to harvest. With the demand we saw last year, everyone wishes they could turn three-foot trees into eight-foot trees.”
Nick said growers who got nailed when there were too many trees got smart and they aren’t going to plant more than what they think they can move eight years from now. “The reality of the industry is that we can’t respond to demand as quick as people would like,” he said. “The demand will be met this year, but people might have to come out and shop for a tree within the first two weeks if they’re particular about a certain species or size.”
Another factor in the tight supply is related to aging Christmas tree farm owners. “They love the business, but if the next generation isn’t coming in, they might get another offer to develop their land,” said Nick. “Or they might have another farmer who wants to rent the ground.”
Nick also believes last year’s shortages were due to changes in travel habits. “Many people typically travel between Thanksgiving and Christmas, but they didn’t last year,” he said. “The lack of traveling to other families’ homes for the holidays changed the dynamics of how many trees were sold. Smaller gatherings also brought the need for more trees. But it’s good news that a lot of the younger generation are interested in real trees.”
Visit Wolcyn Tree Farms and Nursery online at WolcynTreeFarms.com.