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High Prices Lure Balsam Fir Tip Poachers into Maine Woods
12/05/2013   Reported By: Jennifer Mitchell

So where did your Christmas wreath come from? Chances are good it came from right here in Maine. From roadside stand to catalogue, Maine is a leader in the Christmas greens industry, and possibly even the biggest producer of balsam fir wreaths in the country. But as a cottage industry, it's all a little hard to track, and that's a problem. As Jennifer Mitchell reports, with good prices for wholesale balsam fir tips, more folks are going out in search of a little green - and that's not sitting well with landowners.

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Wanda Pinkham, pinches tips off a balsam fir to fashion into Christmas wreaths.

Deep in the woods of Washington County, legions of wreath makers are getting up early and trudging through acres of snow and mud in search of the king of Christmas evergreens. "This is the balsam, and you just break tips, about 14- to 15-inches long," says Wanda Pinkham.

Pinkham comes from a long line of Downeasters who have learned to make the most of a seasonal economy. November and December are spent combing the forests for tips of balsam fir, which she and her mother, Terrie, make into Christmas wreaths.

These they'll sell locally from their garage and - on a very small scale - through the mail. Pinkham is one of the lucky ones - she doesn't have to go far to find what she needs. Her uncle owns a 400-acre woodlot nearby. But this year, Maine Forest Service rangers are patrolling the land, because last season the Pinkhams had big trouble with thieves.

"They just go in and cut brush," says Rodney Pinkham.

"They" says Pinkham are locals looking to provide the area's big wreath suppliers with wholesale greenery which will then be made into thousands of wreaths that will adorn doorsteps from here to California. And they don't bother to negotiate a permit price with the landowner, which can cost anywhere from nothing to several hundred dollars.

"There's good money in it - if you don't have to pay for it," Rodney Pinkham says.

"The demand for wreaths has gone up, and so obviously the prices have finally started to react to the point where at 40 or 45 cents a pound, people can make very good money at it," says Courtney Hammond, a ranger with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.

This season has kept forestry officials busy, Hammond says. While proper tipping actually stimulates a tree to produce more shoots, Hammond says illegal cutting is having the opposite effect, because people looking to make a quick buck take shortcuts.

"The people that are doing it illegally tend to take the entire limb off the tree," Hammond says. "They'll use pole pruners to reach too high into the canopy, or the crown of the tree, and do significant damage. Or they may even cut the tree down."

Last month, rangers confiscated 1,400 pounds of poached tips in just one swoop; and Hammond says it's not uncommon for rangers to take away as many as 700 pounds froma single tipper.

But tipping is an important seasonal industry for rural areas like Washington County, where there's not much else right now in the way of employment.

Wreaths 1 - 1525David Whitney will employ about 600 people for the holiday season at Whitney Wreath (left), not counting the 200 to 300 tippers who will come to him with their sticky, fragrant balsam greens.

Whitney is possibly the biggest mail order balsam wreath company in the country. He supplies LL Bean and the shopping channel, QVC, with Maine-made wreaths. That means every winter he relies on tens of thousands of pounds of locally-cut balsam fir tips.

"Our tippers have to have a permit in order to sell to us," Whitney says. While it would be easy to look the other way, Whitney says it's in everyone's best interest to protect the industry that's so important to so many people. He does that, he says, by making sure his wreaths are 100 percent legal.

"I feel very passionate about Christmas wreaths," he says. "I literally started in this business as a tipper. I started when I was eight years old. It's like any other business relationship - you build a relationship and you come to know who you can trust. Many of the people we buy from I've known my whole life. We know when it comes on the floor whose tips we're working with."

Whitney sells his wreaths for about $30 to $40, but he won't disclose how many of them he'll sell in a season. What he will say is that it's "vitally important" that anyone who buys one be able to feel good about the purchase and know that it's the real deal.

Photo of Wanda Pinkham:  Nick Woodward

Photo of Whitney Wreath shipping room:  Jennifer Mitchell


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