White House Christmas Tree: 2011
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Sharing the Gift of Real Trees with the Nation

When Tom and Sue Schroeder arrived at the NCTA Convention & Trade Show in Ohio last August, they could never have predicted that it would be their year to win the National Tree Content, after entering three times before. “Entering but not winning the national contest is both rewarding and frustrating, knowing that you were so close, but finally winning is 100% exciting,” Sue commented after their first-place balsam fir was selected as the 2011 Grand Champion.

Then again, they probably never could have predicted that what started as a side business back in 1976 would eventually take them all the way to the White House. However, it should be no surprise to those familiar with the family’s hard work ethic and passion for doing things right. In fact, the Schroeders’ son, James, has a favorite saying that best describes how the family approaches their business and personal lives – “Overdo it or do it over.”

A Shining Example

That motto has served them well over the years in all their businesses, and particularly their Christmas Tree wholesale and retail operation, Schroeder’s Forevergreens, which began 35 years ago. Tom and Sue had just purchased a house and small shop on a very business commercial corner in Neenah, Wis. Since December was a slow time for their auto upholstery business, Tom, who was raised on a dairy operation, thought selling Christmas Trees might be a good way to supplement their income.

Their parking area was soon transformed into a tree lot offering warm apple cider, frosted animal cracker cookies and high quality evergreens. Over the years, the Schroeders have operated up to three retail lots in the Fox River Valley area of Wisconsin, providing about one ton weight in cookies and more than 500 gallons of apple cider to their customers (as well as beautiful trees and treasured memories).
Early on, Tom and Sue made a commitment to selling high quality trees, and when finding trees that met their specifications became difficult, they took matters into their own hand. The couple started planting trees in 1987 on 40 acres they had purchased in Marquette County, Wis. Today, they grow several species of trees on approximately 160 acres in central Wisconsin.

In order to learn as much as they could, and improve their business, the Schroeders joined the Wisconsin Christmas Tree Producers Association and the National Christmas Tree Association. In keeping with the “overdo it or do it over” theme, Sue served as marketing director of the WCTPA from 1996 to 2006, and the farm will be hosting WCTPA Summer Convention in August 2012.

Once the trees had grown tall enough to qualify, the Schroeders began entering their state tree contests, and fellow Wisconsin tree growers selected their trees as Grand Champions in 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2007. They were also selected as Reserve Champions in 2008 and 2010, making them eligible to enter the National Tree Contest. The announcement that they had finally won was made even more special by the fact that it took place on the couple’s 39th wedding anniversary.

A Perfect Gift

The initial surprise over being selected as Grand Champions soon gave way to a whirlwind of excitement from media and customers. In addition to preparing for their sales season, the Schroeders had to prepare for some special visitors from Washington, D.C. In early October, the farm welcomed White House staff, including Superintendent of Grounds Dale Haney and Jim Adams, Supervisory Horticulturist with the National Parks Service.

After viewing several trees, the selection crew chose a beautiful balsam fir that had been planted on the farm 18 years earlier. As luck would have it, the selected tree had narrowly escaped harvest the year prior, when Sue tagged it “just in case” they might win the national contest.

“We were looking for the perfect Christmas Tree for the Blue Room and I believe we have found it,” Dale Haney commented. “It’s really important that the tree has the right look and feel. I think we have really great choice this year.” With their work done, the staff returned to Washington. The Schroeders’ work was just beginning, as they had to prepare the tree for harvest and transport.

On Nov. 17, media reporters and videographers looked on as the Blue Room Christmas Tree was harvested, baled and loaded onto a FedEx Ground truck for its 883-mile journey from Neshkoro, Wis., to Washington, D.C.

At the White House, the tree was unloaded and transferred to the traditional mode of transportation – a horse-drawn wagon, for delivery to the First Lady. On the Friday after Thanksgiving, the wagon pulled the tree up to the North Portico, where it was greeted by the First Lady, the Schroeders, NCTA President Richard Moore and wife Kay and numerous reporters. After looking the tree over, the first family, including daughters Sasha and Malia, gave it an enthusiastic thumbs up.

Sharing with the World    

For the past several years, the Schroeders have generously participated in the Trees for Troops program, donating trees and hosting a trailer drop during Trees for Troops Weekend. Little did they know, their donation to the White House would also have a special connection to military families.

Under the 2011 theme of “Shine, Give, Share,” the Blue Room tree was dedicated to military families and adorned with medals, badges and patches from all branches of the military, as well holiday cards collected from military children. “The spirit of service and selflessness we see in our troops, veterans and their families represents what is best about America,” the First Lady noted in the holiday tour book. “Their strength and commitment to our country inspire us all, and this holiday season we celebrate the contributions of these heroes and honor their sacrifice.”

To further show appreciation, First Lady Michelle Obama hosted a special reception in early December at the White House for Gold Star Families, those military families who have lost a loved one in service to the country. Along with the Blue Room Christmas Tree, the families were recognized with a special tree in the East Wing paying tribute to the fallen heroes. The more than 100,000 visitors to the White House during the holiday season were invited to write notes to be sent to the troops.

Among those visitors were the Schroeders, who made a quick journey during their busy season to see the decorated tree.  “What a thrill this was,” said Sue. “It’s such an honor to represent all the family farms in the U.S. that grow Christmas Trees. We work hard to plant, nourish and harvest great trees for families. But it’s a labor of love, because a fresh Christmas Tree means so much to so many people. And now they have one in the White House too.”