April 24, 2018
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Christmas means big business in Washington County

By Tom Walsh, BDN Staff

MACHIAS, Maine — Now that leaf-peeping tourists are migrating home and 100 million pounds of blueberries have been raked, Washington County is gearing up for the big business of Christmas.

Companies such as Whitney Wreath, Worcester Wreath Co. and Kelco Industries support hundreds of Maine jobs during the holiday season and produce more than a million balsam wreaths and other handmade holiday decorations such as garlands and table centerpieces, which are dispatched through the mail to customers around the world.

Mail-order retail wreath prices range from $49.95 for a 30-inch, double-sided, made-in-Washington-County balsam wreath from L.L.Bean to $15.95 for a single-side, 22-inch remembrance wreath from Whitney Wreath, Washington County’s largest wreath manufacturer.

Whitney Wreath produces hundreds of thousands of wreaths a year that are sold through its website; on QVC, the home-shopping television station; and through resellers such as L.L.Bean. During the next two months the company will employ as many as 600 seasonal workers at its 75,000-square-foot facility in Machias and at four other locations throughout the state.

“We are absolutely the largest UPS shipper in eastern Maine,” says David Whitney, CEO of Whitney Wreath. “On a busy day, we’ll ship between eight and 16 UPS trailerloads of individually packaged products, and that will go on for weeks.”

While Washington County is the epicenter of the wreath business, the statewide economic effect of balsam fir products is approximately $25 million annually, according to David Fuller, the University of Maine Cooperative Extension’s nontimber forest products professional.

“Balsam wreath production is a seasonal industry not only in Washington County, but throughout Maine, but on a much smaller scale,” UMaine’s Fuller said. “The manufacture of balsam fir products is a good example of a cottage industry that requires little in start-up costs, although a good business and marketing plan is necessary for success.”

Morrill Worcester is another major player in the Washington County Christmas scene. His Harrington-based Worcester Wreath Co. has been in the wreath-making business for 42 years and operates out of two production facilities. Worcester says he won’t know how many seasonal workers his company will need until wreath orders start coming in, but he expects six weeks of wreath making to begin in a big way in mid-November.

Last year, Worcester Wreath sold 325,000 wreaths used to decorate the graves of veterans in more than 800 military cemeteries throughout the country, including thousands of wreaths the company supplies to Wreaths Across America, the nonprofit organization in Columbia Falls that decorates gravesites at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

While the wreath companies have some year-round employees, the nature of the industry means the bulk of the effect is during the holiday season.

Namchu “Kim” Crosby of Machiasport has been making wreaths at Whitney Wreath for the past 11 years. This week she was busy preparing pine cones of various sizes for the wreath production line. Unlike many seasonal workers whose earnings are determined by how many wreaths and other balsam decorations they make, Crosby is paid on an hourly basis.

“I have done many different jobs in making wreaths here, including making bows from ribbon,” says Crosby, for whom English is a second language.

The local and regional economic effect of the balsam industry extends beyond the seasonal workers who are employed by wreath makers and paid on a per-piece production basis. The raw materials required by Washington County wreath producers are “tips” — 18-inch boughs harvested from balsam trees throughout northern Maine and Atlantic Canada by countless “tippers.” The tip harvest usually doesn’t get under way until early November after a major frost, which helps strengthen the needles.

Wreath makers pay between 30 and 40 cents per pound for fresh and fragrant tips, with about four pounds required for a 24-inch wreath. Whitney Wreath expects to buy more than 1 million pounds of tips this year. Whitney says his firm pays tippers anywhere from $75 to $600 a day.

Down Route 1 in Milbridge, Doug Kell has spent more than 50 years building a business around Christmas. His Kelco Industries operation sells wreath-making supplies — ribbons, metal wreath rings, pine cones, Santa ornaments, glittering baubles and wreath-making tools — as well as wreaths and Christmas trees sourced from his 450-acre Sunrise County Evergreens tree farm in the Aroostook County community of St. Francis. An on-site, 3,000-foot landing strip allows Kell, 82, to commute from Bangor to The County at the yoke of his own airplane.

Kell’s company employs 50 people year-round. Starting in October, as things ramp up for the Christmas rush, he’ll add 20 to 40 more to handle demand for nearly 50,000 wreaths and wreath-making supplies.

“Although sales have been down in the last few years, I feel a great responsibility to my employees,” Kell says. “I’ve only been able to provide them with small raises, while at the same time their cost of living is going up.”

Whitney points out that his company’s effect on seasonal employment is a significant economic driver in a local and regional economy that is, by all accounts, struggling.

“People pooh-pooh seasonal employment, but it’s how a lot of people in Down East Maine feed their families,” he says. “The jobs I offer are of vital importance. I can fill them because there’s a need. A day may come when I cannot fill the positions I need, but not anytime soon.”

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