GLIDDEN — Beauty can sometimes be hard to find on the bleak, frozen landscape of northern Wisconsin and Minnesota, but Winter Woods sees the allure and helps others appreciate it, too.
Winter Woods, based in Ashland County, specializes in forest naturals, supplying craft stores, wholesale florists and others with pine cones, birch, boughs, twigs, moss and other materials for use in crafting and floral décor design.
Items scavenged from forests worldwide take on a second life as Christmas wreaths, cinnamon-scented and colored pine cones, yule log bundles, candles, fire-starter sticks and more.
Because of leaves and moisture concerns, mid-winter — from about late-December through March — is the ideal time to harvest pine cones and other materials from the woods that can be sold the following fall, according to Winter Woods manager and part-owner Ed Schmocker.
Most often, Winter Woods buys materials from local individuals who bring them in to sell, Schmocker said. He said they have had many tribe members cutting birch for them in the nearby Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, but harvesting has been limited recently. Only members of the tribes are allowed to come in, and they must have a permit to do so.
“They put a moratorium on it because it got out of control,” Schmocker said. “You’ve got people that think nobody should be in the forest except them, and others think, the tree’s there, cut it down. We need a median.”
Perhaps the biggest wholesaler of birch in the region, harvesting and buying birch trees from within about a two-hour drive of their Glidden headquarters, Winter Woods began humbly in 1976 as a wintertime wreath-making business out of a small log cabin.
Steve Lewis, a U.S. Forest Service worker and teacher and “back-to-the-earth guy,” according to Schmocker, moved to the area in the 1970s and saw wreaths as a way to supplement his income, hiring locals to help him make them for sale to wholesale florists in the Chicago area.
“He started a little factory on the other side of the railroad tracks,” Schmocker said, and in 1988, he moved production into a 12,000-square-foot building.
Wreaths continue to be a major source of revenue, with Winter Woods making 50,000 to 60,000 of them annually. Most of them are sold through Boy Scouts fundraisers, Schmocker said.
But Winter Woods now occupies several buildings throughout tiny Glidden, where, along with the U.S. Forest Service, it’s among the biggest employers in town. Schmocker said they employ more than 60 people during the peak of their year, which ends in early-December. The rest of the year, they have about 25 people working in their various buildings throughout town and out in the field.
While Christmas is their busiest time by far, Schmocker said they also provide items such as birch candles, basswood and birch risers, glittered curly willow and colorful wax-dipped pine cones for weddings. They also create porch pots.
Schmocker said they sell their products throughout the U.S. and overseas into Europe and Japan. Major customers include Hobby Lobby, Menards, Crate and Barrel, Shopko, Whole Foods and the Ballard mail-order catalog.
Bundles upon bundles of birch
Birch trees often get a bad rap, Schmocker said, adding that it’s “kind of a weed.” It grows quickly and regenerates, easily cropping up on scarred land, he said. Once other trees come back in, they usually rapidly overtake the birch and smother it out.
“When it comes up first so thick that, as it grows, it starts thinning itself out,” he said, “they just choke themselves off.”
Birch is like gold to Winter Woods. Schmocker said he doesn’t know exactly how much birch they go through annually, but it’s “a lot.” Along with all their other, larger accounts, he said, they sell a large quantity of colored birch branches to a garden center in Iowa.
Law enforcement in the past couple of years has been cracking down on those illegally cutting and selling birch to buyers such as Winter Woods. Since then, the firm has sought out more partnerships with landowners as a way to make sure their birch poles and white birch stumpage is obtained legitimately.
“It got to the point you don’t want to be buying from people you shouldn’t be,” Schmocker said. “If people are taking it locally, we pay by check. We have had law enforcement come check.”
Schmocker said they have been working more with landowners who have birch trees they want cleared from their property. Much of their birch comes out of northern Minnesota, he said, but Colton Marlett recently contacted Winter Woods to clear some birch trees from part of his rural Clear Lake property so he can reclaim it as pasture. A Winter Woods worker spent part of an early-December weekend harvesting birch from the area.
Schmocker said the company paid Marlett about $3,000 to $4,000 in stumpage for the birch, which measured mostly 1 to 4 inches in diameter. The birch poles were stacked into crates on a trailer for the journey to Glidden, where it’s dried in one of their two large kilns for about a week, then cut to specified sizes before being sold both in raw and finished forms to customers.
White birch remains very popular in home décor, Schmocker said. “It’s a nice-looking tree with a clean-looking bark. That’s why people like it in their house.”
Schmocker said they buy pine cones in a variety of shapes and sizes — some, such as the sugar pine cone, are as tall as 18 inches — from across the U.S., including Jeffrey pine cones that come in from the Lake Tahoe area. They also have purchased pine cones from Italy.
“It’s a little bit bigger than a red pine cone,” Schmocker said. “It’s between that and the ponderosa.”
He said they buy a lot of materials from timber companies and seed extractors, including thousands of dollars’ worth of pine cones from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The DNR heats the cones so they open naturally to allow seed harvesting. They used to simply dispose of the pine cones.
“A lot of big timber companies do their own,” Schmocker said. “They have individuals that collect the cones and sell the seed to nurseries.”
It’s important to keep the harvested materials dry, according to Schmocker. Material that has rotted due to moisture ends up being thrown away.
What people want
Schmocker said he sees a strong future for Winter Woods, with additional warehouses in the works as they aim to meet customer demand. Continued access to forest naturals and the ability to adjust to trends in décor will be critical, he said.
“We’ve built on what customers wanted,” he said. That has included selling 3-inch pieces of maple to Banana Republic stores to create firewood-like wall displays and doing birch-and-driftwood displays for Bass Pro Shops.
Among the challenges he sees ahead for Winter Woods include difficulty finding enough employees, as the number of younger people in the area has been declining due to limited opportunities.