Industry Watch

A family affair: Tom (far right) and Adie Wolcyn (center) standing in good company 

Family effort keeps Christmas tree business running strong

Wolcyn Tree Farms and Nursery combats seasonal variation by also growing other kinds of trees

By Erica Rivera
Thursday, November 20, 2014

Tom Wolcyn found his calling at the tender age of 14 when his father purchased a tree farm in Isanti County in 1967. Norway pines populated the land, planted primarily for conservation purposes because they reduced erosion. Wolcyn’s father, who has a Ph.D. in public health and worked in government, initially tended to the trees as a hobby, but soon joined the Minnesota Christmas Tree Association with an eye toward the retail and wholesale business.
“There’s not many people that walk into the Christmas tree market and understand it well enough to just start it up,” says Jan Donelson, who began farming trees around the same time as the Wolcyns and currently serves as executive director of the association.
The lag time between planting Christmas trees and seeing a profit is seven years at the earliest. The Wolcyns had a head start, however, and were selling by 1969. Wolcyn, then 16, worked in tree sales from the beginning. He landed the farm’s first big customer, the University of Minnesota Forestry Club. He would go on to earn a forestry degree from the university, graduating in 1975. The following year, the farm sold 3,000 trees. That number quadrupled by 1979, so the family purchased another farm. More recently, the company reports, it’s sold roughly 15,000 annually for the past five years. 
In the early ’80s, Wolcyn expanded the Christmas tree selection beyond Norway pines. The farm now grows balsam fir, Canaan fir, Colorado spruce, Fraser fir, Scotch pine, and white pine varieties on 600 acres and sells them in eight states across the Midwest. Wolcyn also added evergreens with seedling and transplant beds, as well as ornamental trees to the farm’s selection to meet the needs of the housing market. 
“Occasionally, we’ll get out to a job site where we planted many years ago and the evergreens are 30 feet tall,” Wolcyn says. The trees serve as a visual yardstick of how far Wolcyn has come in the business.
As the farm grew, so did the family. Wolcyn now relies on his wife, Adie, and three of the couple’s four sons to keep operations running smoothly. Nick and Ben, identical twins and the eldest brothers, work full-time on the farm with the youngest son, Bobby. All three have degrees in business from the University of Northwestern-St. Paul. Wolcyn’s third-born son, Clint, practices ministry full-time and assists on the Christmas tree lot during the holiday season.
“They have really solid education backgrounds and quite a bit of different skills than I have,” Wolcyn says of his sons. “It’s a unique situation because they get along very well.”
With tree farms, Donelson adds, “there’s a real beauty in the nurturing that happens. Tom worked for his father. I see those boys following suit.”
Of course, there are challenges to overcome. The tree business in Minnesota is seasonal, and the off-season lasts several months. Wolcyn uses the downtime to service and maintain the 60 pieces of equipment on the farm. But the inconsistent income became an issue for the family. “That’s one of the reasons we expanded to a nursery, because it gave us a steady cash flow instead of an October, November, December cash flow,” Wolcyn explains.
“There’s a point in every business of: ‘Should we get bigger or not?’ and each avenue in the road that you take brings something forth,” Donelson says of Wolcyn’s decision to expand. 
Today the nursery sells spruce, fir, pine, and many other varieties year-round, from 12-inch container-grown trees to 16-foot balled-and-burlapped ones. Wolcyn also stocks shade trees, fruit trees, shrubs, and perennials. Selling points of these “products” include habitats for animals, increased oxygen, and visual appeal.
Though the farm and nursery employ a team of 20, “we can’t rely on a tremendous workforce” because of the extended off-season, Wolcyn says. 
Donelson sees the employment structure of tree farms as a positive because agriculture offers employment opportunities for youth. She employs 20 teens — some as young as 13 years old — full-time during the summer. She believes the manual labor on tree farms arms young people with skills they wouldn’t get in other kinds of jobs. 
“The work ethic that comes from working on a farm is completely different than the work ethic if you go flip pancakes,” she says. “They also learn customer service.”
Tree farming shapes people, Donelson says. She describes scenes of teen employees bringing their families to the farm at Christmas time with a palpable sense of pride and ownership of the trees.
Such earnest enthusiasm attracts a loyal customer base. Social media also helps. “We have a pretty big presence on the Internet, but a lot of it is word-of-mouth,” Wolcyn says. While the farm’s Facebook page features more than a thousand “likes” and an average 4.7 (out of 5) star reviews, Wolcyn doesn’t concern himself with social media popularity. “My specialty,” he says, “is the trees.”