As a child, Betsy Wahmhoff Perales and her nine siblings loved to be asked one question by their father: “Chocolate, vanilla or strawberry?”
This inquiry came as they approached the Dairy Queen window to order shakes after putting in a long summer day trimming Christmas trees at their fields in Dorr before returning to their main farm, Wahmhoff Farms, in Grand Junction.
“It made the hottest days bearable and fun to remember,” Perales says.
Perales and three of her brothers are the latest of generation of the Wahmhoff family to run Wahmhoff Farms Nursery. It’s truly a family affair: Her brothers Dan and Ken Wahmhoff co-own and operate the farm. Ken is vice president of sales and Dan is president, overseeing day-to-day operations, crews and the farm’s nursery. Perales is the farm’s executive secretary, and another brother, Tom, is the production and crew manager. Dan’s wife, Lorie, is the office manager. Other family members will also pitch in during the busy season.
Perales says they all learned many lessons growing up on the farm, including hard work, perseverance, faith and integrity. Oh, and another thing: No whining. Not about the ticks, not about the heat and not about having tired arms from trimming Christmas trees beneath a scorching sun.
“OK, maybe we whined a little on the really long, hot days,” she admits, “but we did the work anyway. The job had to be done.”
When trimming concluded and brisk winter weather settled in, Perales looked forward to the flurry of activity that accompanied Christmas tree harvest. She still does.
“That was always exciting,” she says. “So many workers usually dressed in rain gear, running chainsaws, tree shakers and balers, and loading big trucks. It was always cool to watch the conveyor belt take the baled Christmas trees up onto the trucks.”
Wahmhoff Farms started in the early 1950s when Carl Wahmhoff Sr. purchased a 375-acre tract of land in Grand Junction. When Carl Sr. died in 1962, Carl Jr. was living in Grand Rapids and came home to take over the farm.
“He jumped into being a farmer with both feet,” Ken says of his father.
By the early 1980s, Wahmhoff’s operations had been moved to the current site at 23090 M-40, in Gobles. In 1996, when their father retired, the Wahmhoff brothers took over what is now 1,000 acres of trees. In the early 1990s, Ken says, the farm also began selling seedlings and transplants. Wahmhoff Farms became Wahmhoff Farms Nursery.
Each Christmas season Wahmhoff Farms Nursery sells nearly 40,000 Christmas trees and 10,000 wreaths around the U.S., including at four locations in Kalamazoo and Portage. The workers plant 60,000 to 80,000 new trees per year. Over the years Wahmhoff Farms Nursery has won numerous competitions, which have provided opportunities to present Christmas trees and wreaths to Michigan governors, including Jennifer Granholm and Rick Snyder. Ken Wahmhoff says judges look for such tree characteristics as symmetry,full-ness and color.
In 2011, Wahmhoff Farms Nursery won the Reserve Grand Champion Scotch Pine Award from the National Christmas Tree Association and received an invitation to Washington, D.C., to deliver a Christmas tree to Vice President Joe Biden’s residence and attend a luncheon.
“We presented three trees at the Biden residence,” Ken says. “One was provided, and they purchased two more. It was quite an honor to be invited to Washington, D.C.”
This year, the farm won Grand Champion in the Decorated and Undecorated Wreath category at the Michigan Christmas Tree Association’s Summer Convention and will again present a Christmas wreath to Gov. Snyder. Ken Wahmhoff points to the words on the company’s logo as the reason for its success and longevity — “Where Quality and Value Prevail.”
“I think that sums it up,” he says. “Our team here works very hard to make sure our products ship when promised and in the condition we would want to receive them in.”
Wahmhoff Farms Nursery also participates in the Trees for Troops program, which provides Christmas trees for military families. The business has participated in the program since 2006, and Perales says it is her favorite event.
“It is a chance for us to give something tangible at Christmastime that reminds the soldiers and their families that they are not forgotten,” she says. “That reminds them of the blessings of Christmas, family, traditions, love and peace in a world that, for many of them, is often torn apart.”
Each season Wahmhoff Farms Nursery donates between 50 and 100 trees to the program. Along with the trees donated by other Michigan growers or paid for by individual donors, the farm and community volunteers this month will load from 400 to 1,000 Christmas trees at the annual Trees for Troops Loading Event.
Perales’ son, Cpl. Travis Wahmhoff, is a U.S. Marine stationed in Twentynine Palms, California, and she has several other family members and friends who serve or have served in the military. She says she understands how it feels not having the family together at Christmas.
“Christmas trees have been our family business my whole life,” she says, “and it’s neat to think that something I do for a living can touch so many lives.”