SEARSMONT, Maine — The Christmas music playing on the radio one recent afternoon made a jaunty, seasonal soundtrack to accompany the flying hands that deftly put together Christmas wreaths, kissing balls and garlands.
It may be the most wonderful time of the year at Evergreen Valley Farm and Greenhouses, but it is also by far the most hectic, according to owner Bud Otis. He turns on the heat at 5 a.m. in the greenhouse workshops, the wreath makers arrive at 6 a.m. and the night shift doesn’t get done until 8 p.m. The company squeezes a third of its annual business from the beginning of November to Dec. 10, and every second counts.
“This is the busiest week in the year,” Otis, 71, said just before Thanksgiving. “We’re right out straight.”
The small, family business has just a couple year-round, full-time workers, but when November rolls around the seasonal hiring frenzy begins: about 60 people known as “tippers” work seasonally to harvest the fir tree tips in the woods and to do the piecework both at home and at the workshops. Some wreath makers have been working for Otis for as long as he’s been in business — 30 years. Some families have provided three generations of nimble-fingered craftsmen and women.
“It’s a good business,” he said, then clarified one thing. “You’re either good at it, or you’re not.”
The short, intense season for tippers, wreath makers, wholesalers and retailers is not only fleeting but somewhat mysterious. No one in state government appears to track the financial impact of the wreath industry, and one government worker laughed this week when asked who does, suggesting that no one in Augusta has time to watch Santa’s workshop.
The Maine Department of Conservation monitors tippers, making sure each harvester has the landowner’s permission, but there are no accurate figures for just how great the impact is. But companies, many in Washington County, hire dozens or even hundreds of workers at the peak of the season.
Two years ago in a previous BDN article, Doug Kell Jr., a co-owner at Kelco Industries in Milbridge, said it would be very conservative to put the impact of wreath making in Maine at $10 million a year.
Wreaths and kissing balls
Evergreen Valley Farm and Greenhouses smells like Christmas, with the sharp, clean scent of balsam fir permeating everything. Men and women move industriously throughout the complex, traveling around the heaps of fir tips that are waiting their turn to be transformed into something festive. A delivery truck was in the process of being packed with decorated wreaths, sprays, garlands and small cemetery baskets to be taken to a garden supply center.
According to Otis, the company uses about a ton of balsam tips each day, with harvesters bringing them 1,500-2,000 pounds daily. One father-and-son duo hauls in more than 700 pounds each day, for which they’re paid by the pound, he said. When asked about the per-pound price, he declined to answer, saying that it wasn’t good for the competition to know those figures.
Inclement weather such as last week’s snowstorm can have a major affect on the short, busy season, as the heavy snow made it harder to go tipping and to make deliveries. Thanksgiving is the only day in the season that he closes.
Over the short season, those tons of balsam tips are turned into six or seven thousand Christmas wreaths, kissing balls and garlands. The company is primarily a wholesaler and sells the pieces to places such as Agway.
Otis said that Evergreen’s prices range from $52 per dozen to up to $100 a dozen for wreaths that can be as small as eight inches across to as large as 48 inches across.
Although the numbers are impressive, Otis said that as Maine wreath companies go, he’s medium-sized.
“Growing all the time”
Whitney Wreath in Whitneyville is one of the largest producers of fresh holiday wreaths and home decorations in the nation and employs about 600 people seasonally. In 2009, the company was selected as the provider of holiday balsam products for L.L. Bean and in 1993 established a relationship with QVC, a television shopping network. These two contracts elevated Whitney Wreath to the largest mail-order Christmas wreath company in the U.S.
Worcester Wreath Co. in Harrington, another major company, each year arranges for thousands of wreaths to be laid on graves at Arlington National Cemetery through the nonprofit organization Wreaths Across America. This year, the organization intends to place wreaths on all 220,000 headstones.
In Searsmont, the Evergreen Valley Farm business is smaller.
“We don’t do tens of thousands,” Otis said.
Although he used to ship about 90 percent of what the company makes out of state, selling 10 percent in Maine, the numbers have flipped.
“Now, it’s 90 percent in-state. Our market is growing all the time,” Otis said. “Wreaths are still a growing business. This year we’re selling 5 percent more than last year.”
Some of those wreaths may be visible in a municipality near you. The streets of Belfast, Rockland, Waterville and other communities statewide are decorated with Evergreen Valley wreaths made by people such as Angel Poulin of Palermo, who took a few moments to chat while getting tips ready to be placed in kissing balls. She has another full-time job but has supplemented her income seasonally for at least a dozen years at Evergreen Valley.
“I just enjoy coming to work,” she said.
For Otis, who started selling Christmas trees and wreaths as a teenager, it has been a good career. In the nonholiday months, a much smaller crew of workers grow flowers like chrysanthemums and other annuals and perennials at the greenhouse and garden center.
“I just happen to enjoy the business in general,” Otis said. “I’m a farmer at heart.”