The air inside the UW Stock Pavilion often has a nip to it by the time the UW Forestry Club throws open the doors for its annual Christmas-tree sale. Some years, there are flurries outside. Inside, all those trees fill the pavilion with the holiday scents of fir and pine.
Scheduled for the first weekend of December, this annual sale now in its 31st year is a fund-raiser for the club. Ray Guries, chair of the UW-Madison Forest and Wildlife Ecology Department, explains that proceeds help support forestry scholarships and student attendance at forestry conferences and field camps.
The sale features about 400 trees -- a figure determined by sales in previous years. "You want to be sure you can sell every tree in three days," Guries says. He adds that Fraser fir trees account for about 60% of the selection, with balsam firs comprising another 30% and white pines the remaining 10%.
Guries says those ratios reflect the evolution of local market preferences over the past three decades. "Thirty years ago we didn't carry a single Fraser fir," he notes. In the early years, he recalls, the sale offered eight or nine tree species, including red pine, white spruce and Norway spruce. All have fallen out of fashion since the Fraser fir's ascent in popularity. "We're slaves to Christmas-tree fashion," observes Guries.
Demand for Fraser fir is reflected in the sale's pricing structure. Frasers sell for $50 each, while balsam firs sell for $40 each and white pines for $30. (Fraser fir wreaths are also available at $22 each.) "Once Fraser fir was available and people discovered they really liked that tree, I think it has become the tree that people seem to want," Guries says. "And it's a nice tree."
While open to the general public, the sale's customer base is dominated by UW-Madison faculty and staff, who account for about three-fourths of the event's sales, according to Guries. This is by design. By keeping the annual sale small in scale and not advertising it off-campus, the UW Forestry Club strives to minimize any semblance of competition with commercial Christmas-tree vendors -- and renders the sale more manageable. He estimates that perhaps three-fourths of those who purchase their Christmas trees at the forestry club's sale are returning customers from previous years.
Guries says the trees are grown and harvested by Tate's Tree Co. near Hancock in Waushara County. Most are between six and nine feet tall. Trucked to the Stock Pavilion, they are unloaded by student members of the club, who take the sale from there. It's a lot of work: helping customers find their ideal tree, collecting payment, coordinating vehicles as they drive through the pavilion, helping customers load their tree into their car or onto their roof rack, cutting an inch or two or three off the trunk.
The payoff, says Guries, is that the club makes just enough money to cover the cost of its activities for the following year. Most of its student members belong to the Society of American Foresters. Proceeds from the sale pay about half their costs to attend the SAF's national meeting and job fair. Other revenues generated by the club's Christmas-tree sale go toward defraying the costs for club members to attend a three-week field skills camp in northern Wisconsin, and for forestry majors in their senior year to embark on a 10-day field trip outside the Great Lakes states. Without that funding, Guries says, the cost might be prohibitive.
Hours for the 2008 sale run 8 a.m.-8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, December 5-6, and 9 a.m.-3 p.m. on Sunday, December 7.
While there are slight fluctuations in demand for the tree species available at the sale, Guries suggests its manageable scale renders it all but invulnerable to big surprises. "Over the years," he says, "we have tried to adjust so that on the last minute of the last day we have one of each tree left."