Christmas Trees: Keeping It Real

Holiday visitors to Tannenbaum Farms go home with more than a tree.

By Mark Johnson | Photos By William Pugliano

Back in 1978, Mel Koelling started Tannenbaum Farms in part to practice what he preached. In the 40 years since, however, he has enriched the Christmas traditions of countless families.

Already a Michigan State University forestry professor and respected Christmas tree industry consultant, Koelling says he “wanted to see if the things I was teaching would work in reality.” Five years after acquiring land near Mason, Michigan, and planting his first saplings, he began selling homegrown Christmas trees directly to area customers in a choose-and-cut format. “We started off small, planted our first few trees and expanded slowly,” he says.

From the start, Koelling’s business model wasn’t just about driving to a farm and cutting down a tree. Even before agritourism was a popular concept, he wanted to create a memorable experience for visitors—one that would last long after they left Tannenbaum Farms.

“Our objective was never to collect as many dollars as we could from every customer,” he says. “It was to produce a Christmas tree that they would feel happy about at a reasonable price, while providing an enjoyable environment.”

These days, Tannenbaum Farms sells about 5,000 Fraser and newer concolor (white) firs, white and Scotch pines, and blue spruces annually. Families who visit the farm are treated to visits from Santa, a variety of down-home concessions, bonfires and wagon rides behind the vintage Ferguson tractors Koelling collects.

While the farm also sells maple syrup, pumpkins, firewood and equine hay, Christmas trees are Koelling’s true love. The 80-year-old, who received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Christmas Tree Association in 2017, says he believes that the amount of time and effort invested—often more than a decade in each individual tree—creates a value only found in the real thing.

“The tree is the focal point for any family Christmas,” says Koelling. “Every celebration occurs in its presence. Sure, you can accomplish this with an artificial tree, but there’s something different about picking out your own Fraser fir on a snowy day with your family, riding back with it in the wagon and then warming up around the bonfire with a cup of hot chocolate. These are the memories and traditions that matter and stand the test
of time.”

An Old Man’s Game from Taproot Pictures on Vimeo.