Carl Wegner, Grand Rapids
Life has a funny way of taking you down paths you don’t plan nor expect. “I grew up in south Minneapolis and, at the time, didn’t like talking to people much,” recalled Carl Wegner of Grand Rapids, Minnesota. “We owned a lake place in Wisconsin where my dad taught me to hunt and fish and just spend time in the woods. In high school, I started thinking that a career in forestry was pretty appealing because I would be surrounded by trees, not people.” Well…at least he got the career part right.
After graduating from the University of Minnesota in 1964 with a degree in Forestry, Carl was hired by the North Central Experimental Station in Grand Rapids to teach their 6-month Forestry Tech program. “Here I was, a guy who didn’t want to talk to people, standing in front of a classroom full of students teaching them to be Forestry Technicians. Needless to say, after 12 years of that, I became a lot more comfortable talking to people.” By 1967, Carl was in a joint position, continuing to teach classes as well as becoming the Itasca County Extension Forester where he worked on Tree Farm management plans, held logging and maple syrup workshops, and supervised the Christmas Tree Growers educational programs.
“At some point, one of the Christmas tree growers asked me, ‘How can you teach us about growing Christmas trees if you don’t grow them yourself?’ And that’s how I got in to growing Christmas trees.”
In 1970, Carl entered a partnership with Hugh Beaumont (yes, of Leave it to Beaver fame) who owned an active Christmas Tree farm in the area. They sold their first trees in 1972. By 1979, Carl and wife Jillaine purchased the 140 acre farm and never looked back. “When we started, we followed the most current specifications. In the 1970s, that meant 6 by 6 foot spacing. Now we know that’s way too narrow, but once you start an area with a certain spacing, you’re pretty much stuck with it,” said Carl.
While many practices have come and gone over the years, the love of tree farming is a constant along with an ever-present interest in improving his product by pursuing a better Christmas tree. “Bill Sayward at Itasca Green House used to live on the east coast and was instrumental in creating a system of critiquing trees for the best Christmas tree characteristics. When he moved to Minnesota, he brought that expertise with him. In 1988, I attended the National Christmas Tree Growers convention in New Hampshire where I first saw the New Hampshire blue balsam. I purchased 1000 seedlings and brought them back here to plant. Working with Bill, we’ve saved the best trees from that planting for taking scions for grafting to other root stock and for collecting seed,” said Carl.
Every August 15th finds Carl at his New Hampshire Blues, testing their cones for harvest. “By squeezing the cones and listening, you can tell how close they are to being ready.” When the sound it right, which Carl describes as a dry, squeaky sound, he picks the cones and places them on burlap in the shop where they continue the dry down process. Once they’re ready, he places a screen over a 5-gallon pail and rolls the cones, collecting the seeds in the pail.
“In mid-October, I broadcast seed the bed, and in spring we put a shade tunnel over them. They grow there for three years before I transplant them to another bed with more space to grow for another two years,” said Carl. After 5 years or more, the seedlings are ready for the field. “During planting season, I dig enough seedlings for planting the next day, trim the roots, and eliminate multiple tops. The next morning they’re ready to be put in the ground,” said Carl. Besides the blue balsam grown on site, Wegner orders other varieties of conifers from the DNR. Son Eric also works in the operation along with one other employee, taking care of most of the planting, shearing, harvesting and marketing. Currently, they have 50 acres in Christmas trees, selling around 2,500 trees per year in northwestern Minnesota, Duluth, the Twin Cities, and eastern North Dakota.
Wegner continues to use his forestry and educational background in various ways, including field days at their farm featuring sawmill clinics and Christmas tree workshops, and in 2005, hosting the National Exotic Conifer Conference.
Though retired from Extension work in 1997, Carl has yet to slow down. In May of this year, he was recognized as the northern region Tree Farmer of the Year. He laments the fact that few young people are going in to the Christmas tree growing business. “The market is good and there are a lot of opportunites for Christmas tree growers, but there isn’t a lot of new blood getting in to it. For one thing, you have to have the land, and it’s just too expensive if you don’t already have it in the family. For another, it’s pretty labor intensive. You have to be willing to work hard and want to be around trees, just like I did as a kid.”
Since retirement, Carl has come full circle and now spends much more time surrounded by trees than by people. He certainly seems to be comfortable in both environments, but you won’t hear him complain that he’s finally living out the job description he planned on over 50 years ago.