By Kathy Gibbons
A $110,000 grant from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development is helping Dutchman Tree Farms expand its rapidly growing wreath-making operation.
"We have found there's a need in the market for high-quality Fraser Fir wreaths," said Nursery Manager Scott Powell.
In 2011, Dutchman bought a wreath company out of New Brunswick, Savoie Exports Ltd., took over its client list and acquired its equipment, along with two years of consulting and training.
"We were actually approached by the owner of Savoie," Powell said. "He had a good friend here locally who was also a Christmas tree grower who knew we were looking to kind of get into something."
Until then, Dutchman had purchased wreaths to sell with trees it harvests from its acreage in Missaukee, Wexford and Osceola counties, in addition to some in Kalkaska and East Jordan.
"We had been buying wreaths locally from other producers, just a few thousand," Powell said.
The company started its own production last year in a former FedEx facility in Cadillac and cranked out 90,000 wreaths. Powell describes that whole endeavor, while successful, with one word: "Chaos."
This year, the wreath-making operation has been relocated to the former Avon Automotive building in Manton, which had been vacant for five years, Powell said. A local inventor built a machine for the company that strips the trees in the field and replaces manual labor.
"Last year, it took us about 50 guys out in the field to keep up," he said. "This year, out in the field we've been able to reduce that number down to eight."
Still, the company expected to hire about 100 workers for its seasonal wreath production, with "good-sized" orders going to major retailers, including Home Depot. Its trees also are sold throughout Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska and Missouri.
Dutchman uses all of its own trees and brush to make wreaths.
"Because of that, we're still classified as agriculture," he said. "If we started buying boughs in from other farmers, we become business. So we're using our own brush."
The state grant is designed to support value-added projects and helps Dutchman with equipment and marketing. Powell said the beauty of the company's wreath-making endeavor is that it uses trees that aren't up to par and that the company normally wouldn't be able to sell.
"We'd be chipping them right in the field," he said. "This way, we're able to get a value-added product for something we would normally cull."