Disease affects Christmas tree cultivation in Manistee area

KALEVA — There’s no such thing as an offseason for Calvin Lutz, owner of Calvin Lutz Farms in Kaleva. Every season — including winter — has its own set of tasks that need to be done.

Some of these tasks have gone on, season after season, for over a century at the family-owned farm.

“There’s no break — we’re at it all year long,” Lutz told the News Advocate.

Winter is, however, a slower time of year on the farm, when it switches from selling fresh produce to evergreens for the holidays. Fewer daylight hours also means shorter days for workers.

“It’s daylight not till 8 (am) and we’re done by five o’clock (pm) That’s a blessing compared to summertime. The cherry season we start at 6 (am) and we don’t get done until 11 (pm),” Lutz said.

The Lutz Farm was founded in 1895 by Matthew Lutz who had arrived from Germany, according to the farm’s website.

At the time, the farm was used for cattle, until Matthew Lutz’ grandson Calvin (Pete) Lutz took over the farm in 1952. The Michigan State University alumni gradually changed it “from a cattle farm to a fruit, vegetable and Christmas tree farm .”

“When Pete’s son Calvin II finished MSU in 1978, he purchased his own farm and became involved in the management of Fruit Haven Nursery. Today Fruit Haven Nursery and Lutz Farms own 975 acres, growing Christmas trees, fruit and vegetables,” reads an excerpt from calvinlutzfarms.com.

A crew at Calvin Lutz Farms operates machinery to package Christmas trees on pallets for easy shipping in this 2012 file photo.

File photo

For over 60 years, Lutz Farms has sold its Christmas trees to residents in the Manistee area. Lutz said that northern Michigan farmers used to prefer the Douglas fire, but environmental stresses such as disease have changed that in more recent years.

“Douglas firs are West Coast trees, so they get disease problems after a while,” Lutz said. “You go back, Douglas firs used to be the biggest ones. Now we’re growing big firs to replace them.”

Other non-native evergreens, such as the Scotch pine and blue spruce also struggle with disease, and they aren’t the only trees in the area which have been impacted, according to Lutz.

Christmas trees at Calvin Lutz Farms are readied for shipping in this 2012 file photo.

Christmas trees at Calvin Lutz Farms are readied for shipping in this 2012 file photo.

File photo

“I’d say our woods’ health is really getting bad and Christmas trees are the same way,” Lutz said. “We lost elm trees a long time ago. … We lost all our ash trees in the last 10 years. Oaks got diseases too and they’re starting to die. You’ve got beech trees with diseases that are dying. Maples are the last tree we got left around with nothing wrong that’s really healthy — who knows when that’s gonna get a disease.”

Today, Lutz’ tree of choice may be the Fraser fir, which he says is less disease-prone than many other cultivated trees. That means it’s more likely to hold onto its needles for a longer period of time.

“You can’t sell a Christmas tree to take it home and have all the needles fall off — that’s never a good thing,” Lutz said. “Spruces, in general, are not good — they last two to three weeks (in the home),” he said. “You can get a good Fraser fir, they’ll go for eight weeks. And then you have the Douglas fir that’s fairly good, and lasts a long time. Grand fir, the new one that we have, seems to hold on real well too.”

Winter is also an important time of planning for next year’s cycle of sowing, tending and harvesting crops.

A typical year for the roughly 1,000-acre farm includes growing asparagus, strawberries, sweet and tart cherries, pickles, pumpkins, Christmas trees and other assorted garden vegetables. Calvin Lutz Farms operates a farm stand with in-season produce, a U-Pick for sweet cherries and strawberries, and a “U-Cut Christmas tree location as well as three retail Christmas tree locations in the Detroit/Lansing area,” according to the website.

During peak times, Lutz says he employs between 60 and 80 workers.

“Growing conditions were good this year,” Lutz said. “We do so many different crops, all the crops did pretty good except cherries.”

Lutz reported that the cherry market has been challenging for the past decade, with insufficient capacity to process the state’s full harvest.

“There’s a lot of demand, we just don’t have the pitting capacity in the state,” he said. “Michigan does about 80% of the tart cherries in the USA, and because we’re not getting enough money for them, we’ve lost processors over time, so we can’t pit a full crop.”

As a result, Lutz said that local farmers are struggling against international importers in places like Turkey and Poland.

“It’s really hard to compete in the world market,” Lutz said. “Once you start shipping out of your local area it gets really, really tough. … When you do (local) things, shipping is cheaper, everything else is cheaper. So the more you can do locally, the better it is for the people.”

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