In a corner lot in West Lincoln Park, a family business of Christmas trees

12/19/2012 10:00 PM

By IAN FULLERTON
Contributing Reporter

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Sarah Latzig stood among the Fraser firs spaced throughout the courtyard behind St. Josaphat Church last Thursday afternoon. Her partner, Travis Teske, greeted a customer who perused the trees as the early evening traffic set in on the other side of the church.

“Right now, we’re ready to go home,” said Latzig.

For her and Teske, home is Merrill, Wis., a small city of less than 10,000 people located about 100 miles northwest of Green Bay. It had been about a month since they departed from their 100-acre farm there, with about 800 trees in tow, and settled into the small lot at the corner of Wayne and Belden avenues where they have peddled Christmas trees to Chicagoans for the past six years.

Most of the tallest trees were gone, Latzig noted, having been scooped during their busiest part of the season, the between the first and second week of December. Now they were focused on getting rid of as many trees as possible before the trip back.

“Sales go down and you’re spending more than what’s going in,” she said.

They began discounting trees a few days before. Conveniently, Teske had a cousin who would soon take their remaining stock and try to sell the trees off for cheap around the state. A percentage of the tree sales goes to the church, and Latzig also donates trees to nearby schools and the local police station.

This year, Latzig and Teske had been staked out at the church courtyard since the day after Thanksgiving, staying open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day and spending what was left of their nights at the Diplomat Hotel. The shift, common for Christmas tree sellers, leaves little time for sightseeing.

“I’ve never been downtown,” Latzig admitted, somewhat proudly.

Latzig’s tenure at St. Josaphat has been short (they inherited the lot from another Wisconsin couple who had sold there for 17 years), but the family’s piece in the Christmas tree business has lasted decades.

With plenty of spread-out, workable land available, there have always been about ten-tree growing families in Merrill at one time or another, she said. Her husband’s family began tending their stock of trees around 35 years ago after inheriting the land from another family member; the farm now holds 70,000 trees, the oldest of which stay in the ground for 15 years before being cut.

In Wisconsin, the tree-tending season starts around March, following a two-month snow cover that leaves time to repair chainsaws, cutters and various other farming implements needed to maintain the farm.

Aside from the sale of transplanted trees — referred to as “balled and burlapped” plants — not much comes in or out of the nursery for a good part of the year. Latzig used to offer choose-and-cut trees for locals, but the strain of being in two places at once around the holiday season led to her discontinuing that service.

Just before the start of the selling season, the Latzigs round up a five-man crew to cut and load close to 6,000 trees, most of which make their way to wholesale buyers in Colorado, Illinois and other Midwestern locations by way of hired trucks. The haul is a welcome transaction for driver and farmer alike.

“We’re right after the cranberry harvest,” said Teske.

This year’s harvest was a good one; the farm narrowly avoided the effects of a drought that dried up land south of their farm, Teske said.

Before ringing up his customer, Teske set the chosen tree in a vibrating stand that “shook out the squirrels” along with the loose needles, he said. He then ran the fir through a mechanism which resembled an MRI machine and hummed loudly as it wrapped the branches tightly with twine.

Teske’s life in the tree business started 20 years ago, when he took a summer job with the family.

“Little did I know that tree growers were kind of like the mafia: once we you get in, you can’t get out,” he said.

He liked the job, despite having long since lost his smell for the fresh cut trees — that aromatic scent that puts most people directly into the holiday spirit.

Having no immediate family in line to inherit the business, Latzig said she’ll probably pass it on to Teske when the time comes.

“He knows the business as well, if not better, than I do,” she said.

With the bulk of their expected sales already in the register, the two planned to depart by Monday. Upon returning to Merrill, Latzig and Teske would rush to do the Christmas shopping they missed while in Chicago, a yearly tradition.

When asked if there was a market for last-minute Christmas tree buyers, Latzig let out a quick laugh.

“Yeah, it’s called Menards,” she said.



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