Ed Steigerwaldt’s last name means 'walk in the woods' in German. It’s an appropriate name for someone who grows trees for a living.
Steigerwaldt started growing Christmas trees with his father when he was just a kid.
“That’s what I grew up as,” he said. “As a little boy, I used to follow him and help him out in the woods. And I loved the work.”
Now Steigerwaldt owns 15 tree farms in Northern Wisconsin. With rolling hills, his farms are home to rows and rows of fir and pine trees.
The trees are separated into sections according to their size. Some are barely a foot tall. Others are heads taller than I am.
In some spots, only stumps and lower branches remain rooted to the ground. Those are the trees that were relocated to a living room this Christmas.
Each year, Steigerwaldt sells thousands of Christmas trees.
Most are delivered to wholesalers across the country, from California to Florida.
This year, like many Christmas tree sellers, Steigerwaldt’s trees are sold out.
“We’re just about done,” he said. “I just was saying to my son-in-law, everything here is sold. There’s often 60 trees on display here and it’s pretty much all finished up.”
Steigerwaldt says demand for real Christmas trees was high this year.
Perhaps that’s because more people are staying home for the holidays in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Steigerwaldt thinks the Christmas tree shortage stems from a deeper problem.
“The shortage, I think, has been slowly developing for years and most people didn’t notice it,” he said. “There’s a lot of growers that have been doing it for 30 or 40 years and they’re having trouble finding people who want to take over those businesses. And they decided to quit planting trees six, seven or eight years ago, and that’s happened all over the country like that.”
Christmas trees can take six, seven or eight years to grow, so when farmers stopped planting trees a decade ago, the effects weren’t felt until now.
“You don’t just plant them like corn or beans or anything,” Steigerwaldt said.
Unlike other crops, raising Christmas trees takes years of time.
Steigerwaldt’s smallest trees are so short, they’re hidden behind tall grasses.
“Look at it here,” he said. “Little trees are in here.”
As they grow up, those trees are treated with fertilizer and insecticide.
The branches are trimmed and sheared so the tree will grow into the ideal shape for hanging ornaments.
But even with all the tender loving care given to each tree, many don’t survive.
“Just because you have those trees in the ground, a lot of those trees aren’t going to make it to market because of insects, disease and drought,” Steigerwaldt said.
He said he loses about 35 percent of the trees he plants each year.
It’s an expensive and time-consuming process, which is why the Christmas tree shortage isn’t a problem that can be solved overnight – or even in a year or two.
“I don’t want to say it’s a crisis,” Steigerwaldt said, “but this shortage is going to be around for a while.”
Back in the Christmas tree fields, a pair of Steigerwaldt’s workers clean up after this year’s Christmas tree haul.
They push tree stumps, fallen branches and scraps of wood through a large piece of equipment that spews out a cloud of wood chips.
It’s one of the last days they’ll work this holiday season, but Steigerwaldt is already prepared for next year.
“Look at some of these trees in here that are left!” he said, pointing to a section of trees that look Christmas tree ready. “Look at that!”
Those trees are still standing because Steigerwaldt is saving them for next year, when he’ll harvest Christmas trees again.