Whither the Fedco Tree Sale?

For 36 years, Fedco Trees hosted a wildly popular spring plant sale. For many, coming to the Tree Sale was an annual pilgrimage. Dedicated attendees and hopeful shoppers streamed in with the promise of good deals, and maybe a glimpse of the imaginary gnomes who pull the strings behind the scenes at Fedco Trees. Traffic was sometimes backed up for miles on Interstate 95. People were packed into our warehouse like sardines and slogged through the puddles and sawdust in anything from logging boots to sequined high heels, hailing from Aroostook County to Pennsylvania.

Image: a man plants a seedling and dreams of the tree it will become.

So why did the Tree Sale go away?

In 2020, due to the pandemic, the Tree Sale as we knew and loved it came to an abrupt end. We were forced to close to the public, cancel the sale, and discontinue our order pickup option—we shifted gears to become mail-order only. For a number of reasons, we haven’t revived the sale, and while this change has made sense to Fedco and its workers, it has disappointed a loyal following. For the last few years, many of you with your sad puppy dog eyes have asked if the Tree Sale will return. We are met with this inquiry frequently over the phone or email, over dinner with friends, and even once over the doctor’s exam table. (The doc: “Say, don’t you work at Fedco? When is the Tree Sale coming back? It was so fun. Could really save on shipping!”) We deeply appreciate your enthusiasm and share your nostalgia. In short: Yes, there will be more Tree Sales. Will they look the same? Probably not. At least, not for a while.

A little bit of Tree Sale history

When Fedco Trees was born in the early ’80s, all tree orders were picked up— nothing was shipped. Whatever didn’t sell was surplus inventory, which we put out for customers to buy at a discount when they picked up their pre-orders. It was a low-key event for local folks. A few years later, we started to ship some orders but still held a pickup day and small surplus sale. This model moved with Fedco to a few different home bases with customers following along.

In 1992 we moved to the chicken barn on the Bellsqueeze Road in Clinton (where Fedco Seeds is still based). After all the pre-orders were shipped, we set up for pickups as usual, but also made flyers and advertised our first-ever sale that was open to the general public. This was a turning point and the beginning of what became a production event. Instead of just selling leftovers to our pickup customers, we bought in extra inventory for a bigger sale.

Over time, it grew beyond a sale into what felt like a festival. In addition to 2-for-1 deals on trees, we engaged outside vendors to peddle their wares. Staff donned wigs that spanned the colors of the rainbow; staff member Ellen launched each day by belting out a song while standing atop a root-wrapping table; and sometimes people played music for the crowds. We might have even had a juggler once.

Tree Sale attendees came to expect vendors like Amy LeBlanc of White Hill Farm with her heirloom tomato seedlings and laminated graphics with jokes (memes before memes were a thing), and Jason Kafka of Checkerberry Farm with his array of veggie and flower starts and a never-ending stream of Grateful Dead tunes pouring out of the greenhouse. Various growers and Fedco staff sold potted plants and once in a while the odd craft or two.

We grew even more, and in 2012 we moved down the road to our Hinckley warehouse. By this time, the Tree Sale was an all-hands-on-deck event. We’d spend four long days reorganizing the plants in the warehouse, running wires, and painting artsy posters and directional road signs. We hired extra staff to manage parking, retrieve pickup orders, run cash registers, answer questions, count up orders, and of course to speed-wrap tree roots without poking customers’ eyes out. We had a designated “stage manager” to make sure anyone who fell down a drain could be easily retrieved. Many of you will remember Tom standing at the end of our driveway in a sombrero you could see from outer space— passersby would pull in just out of curiosity. In 2015, Maine’s Downeast Magazine voted it the “Best Springtime Tradition.”

Each year we found creative new ways to move the lines faster, to keep it flowing, to not blow up. It wasn’t until the mid-2010s that we finally stopped using manual carbon-copy credit-card swipers and moved to the Square (whoa!). Most people were fantastically good-natured about the intensely long lines and seemed to derive euphoria from the smell of fermenting sawdust. It’s like they felt baptized by the morsels of wet sawdust that went airborne when someone nearby yanked out a giant plum tree.

The Tree Sale was a fun way for us to sell more trees, welcome new customers, reunite with old friends and make new ones. It was also labor intensive, and we gave away a lot of trees with little return on our expense. Although we were growing our customer base and paying the bills, as a business we weren’t thriving. If the Tree Sale were a cider apple, we would call it a bittersweet one. By the end of the weekend, our crew was utterly exhausted. We wonder how much longer we could have pulled this event off, if Covid hadn’t brought it all to a halt.

An evolving business model

In March of 2020, when we had to cancel the Tree Sale, we did a new thing and created an online surplus sale to move the extra stock. It worked well. The pandemic boom seasons 2021 and 2022 saw record online sales—people were stuck at home and wanted to plant trees—and we sold out of nearly everything we had in inventory. We offered Mainers a flat fee for shipping to help offset not being able to pick up orders in person. We finished those seasons in a timely manner with a better ratio of labor expense to sales, and we didn’t have to stay late to stage a huge event.

We noticed a new model emerging, or maybe an old model was growing: we had become a mature mail-order catalog company. The humans got a break from the public event production, we weren’t selling trees for huge discounts (good for you but not for business), and our bottom line started to look up. While we disappointed some people, we felt a little saner and a little less broke.

In spring 2023, we had enough plants left over to hold an informal, minimally advertised walk-in sale without much ado: instead of a few days it was a week long with only a few people staffing the floor while they tended to other tasks. We didn’t rearrange the room, we didn’t wear wigs or sing, we standardized the discounted price, and we welcomed enough shoppers to make it worthwhile on our end while offering locals a chance to get some good last-minute deals. It was a true surplus sale— sort of like getting back to our roots.

Since the first sale in 1984, Fedco Trees has gone from filling a handful of local orders to operating as a medium-sized business. We’ve retained our cooperative values, and our focus on our original mission is still laser-sharp, yet we’re definitely less of a ragtag, seat-of-our-pants operation. With the growth, we’ve been able to support more workers and farmers, diversify our catalog offerings, start our own propagation program (see page 46), and send even more plants out into the world. It’s been a good run and we intend to keep going. But in order to continue, we have to keep adapting. The only certain thing in life is change, as we all know, and this applies to Fedco as well.

Now what?

We’re always dreaming and scheming, looking back fondly to the good old days while striving to embrace change. When the Tree Sale was born all those years ago, there was no internet and our reach was not far. It’s a whole new game now with orders streaming in via our website. We are juggling tons of growth in the same square footage we had ten years ago. Our number of orders keeps hitting new records, while our shipping season is hitting hard up against the deadline for when bare-root stock is breaking dormancy…and we’re busting at the seams.

We are actively working to acquire funding for an addition with refrigerated cold storage, which would keep our stock dormant longer so we could comfortably take more orders and ship later into the spring.

A longer-range dream is to continue our bare-root order model, but add a retail store with potted plants for sale the rest of year alongside Fedco Seeds and Organic Growers Supply products.

Stay tuned!

In the spring, after we close ordering and survey the leftover stock— around the last week of April— we’ll make an announcement on our website and on social media for a small walk-in sale. It will be a true surplus sale, with good varieties to choose from, but not every variety. Much like the old days, it will be a simple, low-key event. This won’t be the year we rent a Ferris wheel, but you’re sure to spot a gnome or two, yanking trees out of the wet sawdust.