Sleepy Eye couple fends off adversity in becoming largest wholesaler/retailer of live Christmas greenery in the southern half of Minnesota.
Driving two-lane Highway 14 over slippery Sleepy Eye snow, across gravelly prairie hinterlands, and just a frozen spit or two north of eye-blink Cobden (pop. 36)—to the edges of the Earth—the wayward traveler spies an army of 6,000 evergreens surrounding the North Pole at the corner of Christmas Tree Lane and Evergreen Boulevard. Here, dozens of green-clad elves (disguised as employees) are preparing for the next Christmas season.
The proprietors of this enormous Christmas-themed business are Dan and Lynn Hacker, both 60, who own Hacker’s Tree Farm, Nursery and Greenhouse, the largest wholesaler/retailer of Christmas trees, wreaths, and garlands in the southern half of Minnesota. They bleed Christmas green. For example, their living room Christmas tree alone (see photo, left) has more than 3,200 lights and 1,000 Christmas ornaments, including many that have been passed down generations.
It all seems so rosy and cozy here in this idyllic winter wonderland.
And yet not all has been. In 2007, a physician diagnosed Dan with Lou Gehrig’s disease, technically called ALS, which is a fatal neurodegenerative disease. No cure or effective treatment exists, and the vast majority of people with ALS die within five years.
Fortunately, Dan has a rare slower version and could live many more years. He and his wife have repeatedly beaten the odds throughout business and life, and it should come as no surprise they are beating the odds again. What makes their story even more unique has been their dogged determination to find a path for Dan to continue working at this business that began about 30 years ago following another life-threatening disease.
Dan Hacker was raised on a Springfield farm as the oldest of 13 children. He was a chapter president with Future Farmers of America and active in 4H, won awards with both, and developed a work ethic a mile deep doing farm chores and caring for hogs, chickens, and cattle. Being the oldest child developed in him a sense of responsibility. The Hackers weren’t wealthy: his father had only 160 acres.
Said Lynn, sitting at a table in the family living room, hands neatly folded, “They (the Hacker children) all learned to take care of themselves, and how to be a family and help each other out. They all learned to work very hard.”
At age 17, Dan was placed in charge of a 200-person detassling crew for North Star Seeds in Springfield, and was driving a school bus he shouldn’t have been allowed to drive because of his age. He worked at a Vigorena test farm. After graduating from high school in 1970, he attended the vocational college in Jackson for a quarter before running out of money and returning home to Springfield to work at the feed mill. He worked his way up to manager.
On the other hand, Lynn grew up in Door County, Wisconsin, in an entrepreneurial family that prepared her for handling turn-on-a-dime change. Her father sold apples, had a cherry orchard, became a Realtor, bought land, and owned many businesses.
Lynn said, “We used to hire Hispanic workers to pick our 200 acres of cherries. When 10 in the early 1960s, I was placed in charge of managing 60-100 of these workers. I was feeling pretty cocky managing all these people and having everyone listen to me. I didn’t find out until years later my father had paid two of the workers very well to make sure everyone respected me. Through that experience, I gained a lot of confidence dealing with people.”
She went on to graduate in 1974 with a teaching degree from Dr. Martin Luther College in New Ulm.
And that was the year Dan and Lynn found each other. Lynn said, “I had always told my mother I was going to marry a farmer, but she didn’t want me to marry one. She wanted me to attend MLC and marry a pastor or teacher. I loved growing up on a farm. I helped my dad do everything.”
Dan and Lynn met near Hutchinson, at a Lake Marion dance. Said Lynn, “Daniel was very, very shy. On our fifth or sixth date, Daniel got up to go to the bathroom. All his friends then came over to me, and said, ‘Does he talk?’ I said, ‘What do you mean, does he talk?’ They said that over the years they had heard him speak no more than 20 or 30 words. Yet Dan and I had talked constantly for two or three hours our first night. So I never knew Dan as shy. We had a lot in common. He wanted to be a farmer and I wanted to be married to a farmer. I wanted to travel and he traveled. We wanted to raise a family. I wanted to be a teacher—and I would teach for three years.”
At being called shy, Dan couldn’t hold his words. Speaking from his wheelchair, he said, “I am never shy around women. It’s just that Lynn was the first one that had ever said yes, which is why I married her.” The Hackers laughed together.
In 1980, their relationship experienced a jolt—the first of many. Dan had been a hog farmer since the early 1970s, a side business. In May 1980, the market soured, Dan had to sell off, and their “whole world was falling apart,” said Lynn. By then, she had quit teaching to be a stay-at-home mom. Dan had to go work in Springfield for R&W Feeds, and over time would become its manager.
Then in October 1980, their second child, 14-month-old son Tom, contracted a rare form of meningitis and unexpectedly died within 12 hours. The Hackers were devastated and wracked with guilt. They had many questions about life and faith, and few answers.
“Over the years, we’ve learned to look at life differently,” said Lynn. “Life is short. We are Christians and believe the Lord uses you to help others. Once we got over the initial shock, we decided there were certain things we wanted to pass on to our children. One was to show we have to handle what’s given to us in life and not become depressed or angry at it. Life is a path and we don’t choose our path. The Lord gives it to us.”
Lynn paused a bit, before adding, “And when you lose a child, nobody knows how to deal with you and you don’t know how to deal with yourself. My father was very concerned about us. He thought he would try to keep us busy to distract us from the pain.”
Lynn’s father in Wisconsin had 250 acres of untrimmed spruce trees. The Hackers recently had taken emotional and financial hits—they had lost a 14-month-old child and a hog business. Lynn’s father thought Dan could earn money on the side by harvesting and transporting the spruce for distribution to southern Minnesota retailers.
After sighing, Dan said, “But his trees were spruce, and so the needles fell off. Our customers weren’t happy. The next year, we bought from a Christmas tree farmer near Cambridge. The year after that, I bought from others, and they were better, and the business just exploded from there.” In time, the Hackers found a Christmas tree farm near St. Cloud, and eventually they would do virtually all the work for that farm, including planting, trimming, and marketing. The Hackers became educated on popular Christmas tree varieties, and learned from experienced people.
Lynn chimed in, “Then we needed to figure out how to market our trees. So we went to the local newspaper and asked if they had a Minnesota newspaper directory. We called newspapers and asked who in their town sold Christmas trees. Most gave us that information. Our first retailer was Joe’s Camper Sales in New Ulm. From that, we started our mailing list and sales efforts.” It was a great part-time job.
Once again, everything was moving along just fine, until 1985 when Dan discovered one day a pink slip inside his weekly feed mill paycheck.
“They said, ‘Hand in your keys, your done,’” Dan said.
The Hackers had to eat, and so Dan had to sell. He sold 7,000 trees in 1985 and 19,000 in 1986. In 1985, Lynn hired local farm wives to make 500 wreaths for sale to places like Joe’s Camper Sales and for their own family retail business that had started on the farm. The Hackers began selling garlands made from a machine Dan built. Over time, most of their wreaths would benefit nonprofit organizations fundraising in the Dakotas, Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. They began mailing wreaths all over the country, and selling Christmas trees into Minnesota, the Dakotas, Iowa, Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Illinois.
Into the late 1990s, Dan raised and cut every one of their Christmas trees, including cutting up to 500 an hour with a special machine. He and about 20 students traveled the Upper Midwest, working for hire to trim trees for other Christmas tree farmers. Lynn said, “All trees have to have haircuts if you want to sell them. Dan and his crew would shear up to a million trees every year.”
And just when everything was falling in place, once again, the gentlemen owning the land on which Dan grew his Christmas trees decided to sell out to a potato farmer. Suddenly, Dan had to find another source of trees—or be out of business. Fortunately, he had developed contacts with other tree farmers while on his annual shearing expeditions.
By 2007, Dan was physically unsteady, and had leg cramps, and leg and foot pain. A physician diagnosed him with Lou Gehrig’s disease. The Hackers’ initial fear upon reading of an 80 percent chance of Dan dying within five years eventually turned to relief upon discovering the disease in him had a slower progression.
Lynn said, “The (initial) diagnosis changed our whole outlook on business and life. As with everything in our lives, we always seem to be out of the box and do things differently. Dan’s experience having a slower progression is different than most people with the disease. Often, when someone gets a disease like this, they’re out of a job. It’s good we have the type of business we have. Dan has been out there every day telling us what to do—like always. His having ALS isn’t fun, but we’re able to handle it on a daily basis better than how we originally thought.”
“I wake up every morning and give it my best,” piped up Dan, the faint hint of a smile on his lips. “Even though I get fatigued easily, I still give some instructions and order some of what we buy. I do some marketing and email customers. At times, I still go outside best I can and drive through the Christmas trees on my scooter to tell people what to do. The last couple winters, I’ve gone outside occasionally at 2:00 a.m. (when I have the energy) by myself on the scooter to stoke up the wood stoves in our fourteen greenhouses.”
In 2012, the Hackers sold more than 10,000 Christmas trees, 30,000 wreaths to customers in 40 states, and 250,000 feet of garland. They hired 40 part-time piece workers. Their Christmas trees were showcased at the Kiwanis Holiday Lights in Sibley Park (Mankato), and in planters in downtown New Ulm. Their festive roping and wreaths have decorated New Ulm streets for 25 years. Other Hacker retail customers in the Connect Business Magazine reading area include Waseca Floral, Traverse Des Sioux Garden Center (St. Peter), St. James Floral, Joe’s Camper Sales and A to Zinnia (both New Ulm), McCabes Hardware (Sleepy Eye), Trimont Greenhouse, and Bloomer’s Garden Center (Gaylord).
So what do retail customers like those above want? “Quality, quality, quality—and service,” said Lynn. “Over the years, we’ve learned quality sells (with our retailers). To them, we also can provide Christmas tree lights, Christmas tree disposal bags, tree stands, and many other products. We can provide a one-stop shop for our retail stores or for a nonprofit group. At times, we’ve even been able to help a retailer with extra trees find another retailer.”
Dan and Lynn have been a good pair over the years: Dan has been the dreamer wanting to try new things, while Lynn often has been the cold-water realist. Their three children, who grew up in the business and have their own careers, have some interest in continuing the family business.
Said Lynn, “The bottom line is both of us love what we do. When starting in the ‘80s, we didn’t have money to purchase land. Dan’s father had only 160 acres—and we have only 80 acres now. We’ve been farmers nonetheless, but not in the traditional sense. But we still raise plants. We still play in the dirt.”
THE ESSENTIALS: Hacker’s Tree Farm
Address: 45372 190th Street, Sleepy Eye, MN 56085
CONNECT: Have you been hurt by the sale of artificial Christmas trees?
LYNN: The Christmas tree market is holding steady because people are going green. If people only knew the kinds of chemicals that are in many Christmas trees coming from overseas—including arsenic. A natural Christmas tree can be recycled immediately, while artificial trees can take more than 1,000 years to break down. People want to know why they should cut down a tree. We have 6,000 trees here for retail sale on six acres. For every tree a customer cuts down, we plant another one in its place. It’s sustainable.”
Lynn Hacker, co-owner of Hacker’s Tree Farm, Nursery, and Greenhouse said, “The day after Thanksgiving starts my enjoyment. It’s the culmination of everything. It’s when we start retail sales (on our property). We have families coming out to cut their own Christmas trees—preparing for the true meaning of Christmas, the coming of Christ. We sell wreaths here, and customers can pick out and cut their tree. It’s about helping families start traditions so that it can carry on for generations.” And the Hackers love Christmas traditions: their own living room Christmas tree, for instance, had 3,200 lights and 1,000 ornaments this year.
The family business has a second retail location in New Ulm on Broadway, which sells garden center products and bedding plants from April through August. That space transitions over to being managed by A to Zinnia from September through March. A to Zinnia is owned by daughter Heather, who also sells Hacker-raised Christmas trees and pumpkins.
Dan was active in 4H until 2007. He raised Minnesota State Fair Champion hogs in 2004, ’05, and ’07.