|Paul Stuempel and his wife, Rose Anne. |
by Robin Gee
Ahhhh...there is nothing more evocative of the holiday season than the smell of fresh pine trees and wreaths! And, there is nothing quite like a real Christmas tree, said Paul Stuempel, who is setting up his seasonal shop again this year at the Fort Thomas Plaza.
Stuempel grew up in Fort Thomas, but now lives in Dayton with his wife, Rose Anne, who helps with the business. The couple work with about 12 people on site each season, many of them high school students from Highlands and the surrounding area.
|Paul Stuempel, owner of Natural Green, outside his Wreath workshop. He is about to open up his Christmas tree business for the season at the Fort Thomas Plaza.|
An unplanned direction turns into a lifelong passion
This marks Stuempel’s 50th year selling trees. Back in 1970, when he first started, he had no idea he would fall in love with the business and that he would develop a real passion for what started as what one might call an act of desperation, he said.
When he was in his early 20s with two small kids and a wife, he found himself out of a job. He decided to try his hand at selling ice cream and purchased a truck for a season, but there were a lot of other competitors, and it seemed every time he pulled into a neighborhood, another seller had just left.
So, after a disappointing summer, he was again broke and without a job. His father, a bit frustrated with the situation, told him, face up to it, go get a job now. Fall was fast approaching. His dad was likely joking when he threw out a few ideas — why don’t you go get some turkeys or Christmas trees to sell?
Little did Stuempel, or his dad, know that the casual comment would turn into a lifelong business. "Christmas trees? I thought, I’m going to look into that! But, I really knew nothing about it. I even had a fake tree at home," he said.
How it all began
Stuempel had a buddy in real estate who just happened to own an old empty lot across from Krogers in Bellevue. "So I rented it, fixed it up and that was my first Christmas tree lot...I ran electricity from the gas station next door and made a few trees into light poles."
Of course, the next step was to find trees. Back then, before Paul Brown Stadium was built, all the produce wholesalers had open-air markets along the river on the Cincinnati side, in a section known as "the bottoms," and everyone carried trees, he said.
At the time, business was booming. "My lot was in the middle of six other Christmas tree lots. You couldn’t pass a church parking lot or see a boy scout troop who was not selling trees," he said.
In the bottoms, trees were going for $1.25 to $2 per tree. He found an ad in the newspaper from a guy who was selling trees for 75 cents each. The man had harvested leftover trees from fields in Ohio, cut them down and brought them back to sell.
"So, I bought 75 to 100 trees from him, enough to be able to get started," Stuempel said. He continued to buy trees from the seller and from the big produce houses like Castillini and Fries Brothers.
"About 15 years into it, though, I started buying direct from tree farms," he said. For the past 35 years he has purchased from a farm in Michigan.
"The one thing I decided from the start is I would never have a cheap tree on my lot," he said.
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Hard times for tree sellers
As the years progressed, he noted, fake trees began to rise in popularity. Despite this, the market was strong up until the recession of 2008-2009. “The year 2005 was my highest sales. I sold about 1,450 trees.”
Yet, by 2007, the economy had started to unravel and when the downturn hit, things came undone, he said. On top of that, more people were turning to artificial trees for convenience. He has a theory that a reason for this may be that Boomers, who grew up with real trees, are becoming less able or willing to handle them or may be downsizing their homes.
Sourcing trees also became a bit harder after the big produce wholesalers were forced out of the bottoms, but it was the economic downturn paired with the growth of artificial options that took a toll on the industry, especially over the last decade. Fewer wholesalers are handling trees these days, he said.
The business can be volatile anyway, as tree growers are subject to the same issues that can plague any farmer — drought, insect infestation, high winds. Despite all that, Stuempel’s business has been steady, and he’s selling about 1,100 trees a season.
|The season for Christmas tree sales is brisk and intense. It begins just after Thanksgiving and goes through mid December.|
Getting the word out
Over the years, he said, he’s gotten more savvy about marketing. He’s added handmade wreaths and swags as well as tree-related items he sells from a trailer on his lot.
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While he admits he prefers old school marketing over social media, one service he added in 2000 as a little "extra" for his business increased his sales by 30 percent and has turned into a holiday tradition for many Fort Thomas families.
Each year, when a family picks out a tree, Stuempel takes a photo of the family with their tree. As the season approaches, he sends out the photo and a reminder that Christmas tree time is coming. Many families have included these photos on social media and in their own holiday greetings.
Stuempel’s operation is a brisk and intense one. Although, he said the “season” for tree-buying has shifted earlier in recent years, the main sales period runs from the day after Thanksgiving through the beginning of December. "By December 15, most of the trees are gone. We generally close up between December 15 and 17," he said.
Trees and tree grades
The Department of Agriculture has a marketing arm, the Christmas Tree Promotion Board. Stuempel said the board puts the number of trees sold each year at about 15 million. The organization funds research into tree health, including disease and pest management, as well as the role the tree industry plays in the economy and environment.
When asked about what types of trees he handles, Stuempel mentions a wide variety including Scotch pines, Frasier Fir, Balsam Fir, among others. He likes to keep a wide variety, but the common denominator is the quality. He strives for premium and top-graded trees.
Trees are inspected and rated by the Department of Agriculture, he explained. The rating for top quality trees is premium, followed by US 1 and US 2. Below that are field grade trees and those that are ungraded. If a seller feels the trees he or she has purchased are not the grade they paid for, they can call in the government for an inspection.
He said he hoped people would take a look at the benefits of real trees for Christmas. He noted they are a renewable, recyclable source. It takes seven years for a tree to be ready to harvest. If you are growing 100,000 trees to sell, that means you have many times that growing and enhancing the atmosphere.
On top of this, the industry has a healthy economic impact. According to industry experts, there are close to 15,000 farms growing Christmas trees in the U.S., representing 100,000 people employed full- and part-time. As Stuempel put it, "One acre of Christmas trees support the lives of 17 people as well as provides habitat for small animals and birds."
Tips from 50 years selling Christmas trees
|Fort Thomas native Paul Stuempel celebrates 50 years in the tree selling business this year. His business is located at Fort Thomas Plaza.|
Almost everyone who celebrates the holiday has a "tree story," and Stuempel said he’s heard them all. "I could write a book," he said.
Finding the right tree size to fit your home is important, he said. Many times people overestimate the size of tree they need and this causes hassles when the buyer has to spend time cutting the tree to fit.
The most important tip, he said, is to keep the tree hydrated. "Just like flowers, trees need to be in water," he said.
"You need a fresh cut in the base of your tree within the hour of when you are going to put it up," he said. Otherwise, sap will seal the bottom and the tree will not take in the water it needs. Warm water is best, he added. If you are not going to put your tree up right away, you should still keep it in water until you are ready.
Not only does it make for a healthy, long lasting tree, but keeping your tree watered is a safety issue as well. "A fresh tree will not support a flame, but once it starts to dry out, all bets are off," he said. And, keep an eye on that water — some trees will drink up to a gallon a day.
Another tip is to put your tree disposal bag over your stand and under your tree skirt. That way, when you are ready to dispose of your tree, you can remove the skirt and bring the bag up over your tree easily, he said.
The official name of Stuempel’s company is Natural Green. He will be set up for the season at Fort Thomas Plaza, 90 Alexandria Pike.