A growing trend

CARLTON -- Ken and Carolyn Ripp of Cloquet made their traditional family outing to the Chub Lake Tree Farm over the weekend and planned to decorate their chosen 8-foot fir that evening.

CARLTON -- Ken and Carolyn Ripp of Cloquet made their traditional family outing to the Chub Lake Tree Farm over the weekend and planned to decorate their chosen 8-foot fir that evening.

Ken's sister also will put up a Chub Lake tree in her living room this week. But she will pull her tree out of a long box delivered by FedEx, because Ken's sister lives 1,400 miles away in the Florida Panhandle. It's the second year Ken Ripp has sent his sister a fresh tree from the 37-acre farm in Carlton.

"She said it was the nicest tree she had in years," Ken Ripp said. "The neighbors couldn't believe how nice it was," especially since some of them had paid $150 for trees that constantly shed needles.

That's why people order their trees by mail, said farm owners Jim and Beverly Whorton. They began shipping their Christmas trees around the country about five years ago.

"We have the best trees, after all, so why shouldn't everyone have access to them?" Jim Whorton said. A Chub Lake tree costs $39.95, plus $35 for shipping anywhere in the continental United States.


Trees and wreaths by mail remain a small percentage of their holiday sales, but the Whortons still expect to ship about 100 trees this year. They sell about 2,500 trees each year, including wholesale loads sent to Silver Bay or the Twin Cities, and customers, like the Ripps, who come to Carlton for the tradition of cutting their own tree.

"There's no rhyme or reason to who these folks are," Jim Whorton said of the mail-order customers. Sometimes they are people who once lived in Minnesota and want a homegrown tree for their holidays, but "mostly, it's people who want good tree quality, and a good price."

People also are looking for alternatives to "fresh" trees that actually have been sitting in a warehouse or parking lot for a month, he said.

On Sunday, at the tail end of their first open weekend, the Whortons were preparing a load of trees to send by FedEx the next morning. Each 6- to 7-foot-tall fir had been cut a day or so before, rolled up like an umbrella, bound with twine and wrapped in a plastic bag to keep the boughs soft and springy during their two- or three-day trip.

One of the trees was bound for Columbus, Ohio, for a couple that was celebrating their first Christmas together, Beverly Whorton said. The couple placed the order off the Chub Lake farm Web site.

"People like the convenience of it," Beverly Whorton said. "There are a lot of people who buy everything off the Internet."

The Whortons haven't shipped to all 50 states in a single season yet, but they've come close. Trees and wreaths have gone out to Alaska, California, Nevada, most of the New England states, and as close as Michigan and Wisconsin. Someone once asked about shipping a tree to Hawaii, Beverly Whorton said, but dropped the idea after realizing it would cost three times the price of the tree in shipping charges.

"It's an outstanding way to market trees," said Jan Donelson, executive director of the Minnesota Christmas Tree Growers Association and owner of the wholesale tree business Sand Country Christmas trees.


Donelson couldn't say how many tree growers in the state have a mail-order service. She doesn't, because shipping 20,000 wholesale trees in a season takes most of her time, and carefully boxing and sending out each tree can take a while. But given the fact that people can order nearly anything else online, Donelson isn't surprised that the service has caught on.

And she doesn't believe people living on the east or west coasts -- where prices for something as exotic as a freshly cut Christmas tree can be double or triple those in the Midwest -- would bat an eye at spending less than $100 for a tree shipped to their door.

"There is no sticker shock there," she said.

Douglas and Lois Hoffbauer of Duluth have been shipping fresh wreaths around the country since 1997, and added Christmas trees about three years later, Lois Hoffbauer said.

"It just seemed like a fun way to sell trees," she said. "We don't make a lot of money on it, but it gets rid of some of the smaller trees, the 6-foot trees."

The biggest challenge is packing a lush, full tree into a 10-by-10-inch cardboard box, Hoffbauer said. They sell about 20 trees each year through their Web site, mainly to Los Angeles, Florida and New York. But after being featured in a Sunday story in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Hoffbauer received an order to ship a fresh tree to St. Paul.

"I thought that was a little weird," she said.

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