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A Michigan Christmas tree farm that paid for three college educations now 15 years in business

Looking for some extra income to pay college tuition for their three sons back in 2001, Dave and Kathy Bremer floated the idea of a Christmas tree farm.  They had plenty of land to accommodate the hundreds of Douglas firs, blue spruces and balsams needed for such a venture, plus some helpful employees in their three sons. So, they decided to give it a try.

Fifteen laters, Bremer's Tree Farm has become a staple of Bay County's U-cut Christmas tree business. "It has been a lot of work," said Dave Bremer. "You're trimming trees, doing some planting, treating trees. It's work throughout the year, but it has been a big help with college."  It has also become a tradition for some of their customers.  "There's nothing better than having customers come back year after year," said Kathy Bremer. "A lot of families have been really gracious to us over the years."

Most u-cut tree farms across the Great Lakes Bay Region opened for business Friday, Nov. 27, and stay open through the week of Christmas.  At Bremer's, $45 buys you a tree under 9-feet and the experience of cutting it down yourself with provided saws. Staff at the farm will shake and bale the tree and drill a hole in the bottom for easy installation into a tree base at home. A carpet square is also available to kneel on so your knees don't get wet in the snow while chopping it down.  Though Bremer's offers a selection of pre-cut trees, visitors are encouraged to roam its 3 acres of planted trees, taking in the different varieties. The Bremers own 12 acres in all and farms corn and soybeans on the side. The land the family uses today for the tree farms used to be an orchard, but they knew they didn't want to produce apples.

There are plenty of variations of trees available, from balsams to Douglas firs, to the more unique Serbian spruce, which features different shades of green.  Kathy Bremer said it's common for customers to come in without a clue about what kind of tree they want, so she offers up some advice. "A softer tree tends to be the firs, which don't shed as many needles, but aren't as strong to hold up heavier ornaments" she said. "The firmer trees can be more prickly and shed more, but they're stronger. "We setup the different varieties and just tell people to pick the one they think looks best."  Once a customer finds that perfect tree, they can drag or wheel it back to the parking lot.

Bremer's isn't the only tree farm in Bay County this year celebrating a milestone year. Jim's Tree Farm, 733 W. Parish Road, is now in its 35th year and Warren Homestead Tree Farm, 2081 W. Linwood Road in Garfield Township, kicked off its 25th season this weekend.  Similar to Bremer's, customers at Warren Homestead Tree Farm are encouraged to explore the farm's 75 acres in search of that perfect tree.  "Make sure to dress for the weather," said Jennifer Warren, owner of the business. "You also want to wear a good pair of shoes, because there's going to be uneven ground and some small holes to watch out for." And perhaps most important: "Measure how big of a room you have for the tree," Warren said.  Employees are on hand to help customers measure the tree at the farm and tie it to a car for delivery. Warren said her farm is slightly down in the number of trees this year due to a bit of a drought this past spring and summer.  "Some of the trees that we planted in 2012 and 2013 are still too short by about a foot and a half," she said. "It's something we'll be looking at. We may have to look at irrigating next year."

Marsha Gray, president of the Michigan Christmas Tree Association, said older, more developed trees aren't as impacted by drought, but seedlings need plenty of water.  "You can lose a lot of seedlings in droughts," she said. "That can be one of the challenges if you're trying to grow your inventory."  Dave Bremer said his farm — like most other tree farms — are also dealing with blue spruce needle cast, which can turn casting needles brown and cause them to die and fall off the stems.  "It's all over Michigan," he said. "You need to be diligent about treating the trees."

A 'magical experience'

Bremer's Tree Farm is one of the more than 600 Christmas tree farms in Michigan, according to the Michigan Christmas Tree Association. Upwards to 3 million trees are expected to be harvested this season statewide. "It's more than just having a real tree in your house," Kathy Bremer said. "It's about that magical experience of cutting it down. It's a tradition for so many families." When the Bremer's started in the tree business in 2001, they looked to the Kluck family, who owns Kluck Nursery Inc. in Saginaw, as a mentor to help get them off the ground. In their first year, they sold about 70 trees. "The Klucks sold trees during the depression to make some extra money," Dave Bremer said. "Today, they are this huge business."

Just as the Kluck family needed that extra money at the time, the Bremer's used their business to help pay for a college education for their sons Nate, Kipp and Dane.And they were successful.  Dane Bremer graduated from the University of Northwestern Ohio, a trade school where he studied diesel technology. Kipp Bremer is currently studying to obtain his Masters in Business Administration from Northwood University. And Nate Bremer is studying to obtain his doctorate in physical therapy from Wayne State University.  And because of the tree farm, all three graduated with their undergraduate degree debt free, their mother said. With school paid for, though, there's no plans to retire the family tree business. "No plan yet," said Dave Bremer. "I guess we're saving for retirement, now."

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