THIS TIME OF YEAR, DR. PETER MUTCH MOVES FROM MOLAR ROOTS TO BLUE-SPRUCE ROOTS WITH EASE.
“I’ve been thinking.”
Dr. Pete Mutch jokes that when he utters this phrase, his wife of 39 years prepares for an adventure. “Nan says they are the worst three words that come out of my mouth.”
The Michigan dentist and his wife, who now live 30 miles from where they attended Marlette High School together, met during their senior year. “Went to the prom together, we were king and queen together,” he said with obvious affection.
So when he suggested they and their teenage sons move to 80 acres on the northern edge of the Detroit metro area to turn a family tradition into a family business, the answer was yes.
What began in 1993 as a restoration project on an old farmhouse and barn branched into the Mutch’s Hidden Pines that exists today at 303 W. Newark Road in Lapeer, Mich., which features more than 60,000 Christmas trees of different varieties.
“Growing up in a small subdivision, time was spent with Dad coaching sports teams and planning camping adventures. I think as his two sons grew older, the only logical choice was to buy an 80-acre farm and put us to work,” said Dr. Nate Mutch, 32, who works with his dad in group practice of four, Lapeer Dental Centre.
“The first year owning the farm was one of my best memories. When I was about 13 years old, my Dad, brother and I, over the course of a summer, gutted the old farmhouse in preparation for a renovation. Instead of going home at night, my brother and I spent about a month camping on the island that exists in the middle of a 10- acre pond on the property. At the time, it was the closest we’ve been to being Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. Although now that I’m a father myself, I realize we probably should have at least had a cell phone with us,” he joked.
Dr. Pete Mutch planted his first tree in 1993 and opened to the public in 2002.
“It was a long project. I mean, you can get a nice tree in eight years sometimes. Roughly that’s your turnaround time. Once you plant, you’ve got about eight more years before you’re actually going to harvest that tree.
“Back in ’93 and ’94 it was real hectic. The boys were here and they helped a lot when they weren’t in school. They didn’t dare look like they weren’t busy because I’d send them out in the field to do something. Pretty soon their friends didn’t want to come out anymore because I’d make them all work,” Pete laughs. “They’d ask the kids to come out and play and the first thing they’d ask “Is your dad there?”
He and Nancy shared a history with the coniferous greenery. “We both cut trees as kids growing up, so we’re used to that routine. We took the boys when they were little. And it just seemed like something that if I had the opportunity to do, that I just thought I’d like to do it.”
Unlike their success as a team, the success of the tree farm was never a foregone conclusion.
“In 2002… the first two hours didn’t look to good. My wife looked at me and she said ‘This could’ve been the stupidest thing you ever did,’ ” Pete said with a laugh. ”In the first two hours nobody showed up. Right now we, probably, in four weekends see about 5,000 people.”
His elder son Andy, 33, offered his perspective on opening weekend as a teen.
“I was out in the back fields on the left. The very first day we opened it was freezing cold. Nobody went to the farm. So I remember sitting back there and having to start a fire to keep warm and doing jumping jacks outside all day long, wondering ‘Where are the people?’ Then we didn’t even have walkie-talkies to communicate. “
Before long it was obvious the plan was a solid one, though.
“You’re just starting and you slowly build up a clientele of people that come in and get to know you,” said Pete. Then in 2006 they earned the New Grower Award from the Michigan Christmas Tree Association.
“That was a pretty big deal for us. That was pretty neat,” said Pete. “Not counting family on a busy weekend, we’ll probably have 25 people working.”
And counting family, well, there are just a few more.
In addition to working throughout the business, Nancy makes 500 wreaths per year, which the public can purchase and during group sessions, decorate as well.
“Andy is the greeter on the wagon. He’s a great communicator. So I let him sit on the wagon… Nate drives tractor and I just hang around to solve problems,” Pete jokes. “My dad (Phil) runs one of the bailers. Dad’s 82 and he’s been working for me ever since we started. Mom (Pat) does the hot chocolate. My brother Dave comes down from Cadillac, that’s three hours away. He’s one of the greeters on the wagon with Andy.”
Each year since the beginning, the Mutch family adds to the experience.
“The Santa House, the hot cocoa, making wreaths, the gift barn. Each year we kind of just add something to it,” said Andy, whose day job as a Territory Representative for Benco Dental and home life raising two toddler daughters with wife Beth keep him busy when not at the farm.
“One year we built an addition on the barn and then the next year we got a different tractor. It’s kind of neat seeing the whole thing grow. When you see the repeat customers, people that you saw last year and this year they’re bringing their family back. It’s …their kids having smiles on their faces and picking the perfect tree and having snowball fights. It’s fun … when everybody is there you get into that whole Christmas mood. It seems like people get happy.”
If business growth can be attributed to the unique experience offered at Mutch’s Hidden Pines, then the attention Pete gives to suggestions from visitors seems to direct the expansion.
“If you listen real close you’ll kind of get a lot of ideas,” he said.
That philosophy is mirrored in his treatment of patients at the dental office.
“If you listen to your patients, you’ll just get a really good idea of what they want.”
Sometimes comments from the dental chair are even farming related, said Pete.
“I’ll be sitting there doing a root canal and somebody will ask me why their blue spruce needles drop.”
Aside from the obvious interest and support from his patients and staff, he has experienced unique synergies between the businesses.
“Santa (who visited Mutch’s Hidden Pines) the last couple of years… just happened to show up in the office one day and I looked at him and said ‘What are you doing at Christmas time?’ … And that’s how I found my Santa was in the dental chair,” said the Pete.
The crossover is not only on the business side. Many Mutch family traditions took root (yes, you just read that) during the holiday season.
“Pete does a wonderful tradition… he usually cooks our Christmas Eve dinner and usually it’s something we haven’t had. And I tell you we’ve eaten a lot of strange things. The poor man cooks all day long getting this ready,” said family matriarch Nancy, who spends her time away from the farm as a full-time teacher to special education students.
The chef elaborates: “The theory is, it’s got to be something they’ve never had and then they pretty much have to guess what they’re eating too.”
A pasta and octopus dinner? Why not. How about a “Down on the Farm” theme with “a lot of venison stuff, squirrel, turtle, frog legs.” Check.
And their daughters-in-law are a welcome addition, the couple agreed.
“When the boys were dating the girls I always teased them. I said, ‘OK, you know any girls that you’re getting serious about are going to have to work on the farm for three years and pass the farm test before you can get engaged. We have standards here.’ But these girls are a hoot, they put up with the whole thing,” said Pete on his sons Andy and Nate’s wives. Beth and Kate put in shifts at the tree farm gift shop when not working full-time as nurse practitioner and speech pathologist, respectively.
“The girls were really afraid that we would be eating woodchuck and who knows what,” added Nancy about the ‘Down on the Farm’ theme. “And then we had the babies.”
She refers to the youngest generation: three Mutch grandchildren Natalie, 4, Elise, 2 and Averie, 2.
“They don’t sit for a five –to- six- course meal like we used to,” said her husband.
“I think the boys kind of get a lot of this from their father. They come up with some crazy things …life is never dull around here,” added Nancy.
That might be an understatement, coming from a woman who received her wedding proposal in a tree.
“That was a long time ago. Actually we were both seniors at two different colleges and we kind of dated through the undergrad program,” said Pete. “We were at the library one night.”
Nancy finishes their story. “I was working until midnight and he was walking me back to my apartment. He climbed this huge tree just outside library and … told me he found something up there and I needed to climb that tree. So, when I got up there he put this ring on my finger and of course when I think about it now I’m still crying… This guy, I couldn’t ask for a life any better than being with him. Twenty-five years later we went to same tree and I got an anniversary ring there, but he said the tree had grown so much we couldn’t get up in it.”
Both sons took their father’s lead with romantic marriage proposals; Andy shared his story, which took place at the farm.
“I was talking to my dad as I always do …telling him that I wanted to propose to her,” said Andy. “I was out there tagging bunch of trees with my dad…so I was telling him my idea about setting up the tags to say ‘Will you’ and then the next tag would say ‘marry’ and the next tag would say ‘me’ with a question mark or a heart on it.”
“So by the time she put it together and turned around I was down on my knee. It was kind of neat because I completely caught her off guard. She didn’t expect it at all. The best part for me was making sure that she was completely surprised,” Andy said of his wife Beth.
When his two sons were growing in Michigan, Pete, now 61, shared three concepts to help guide them through life: living with purpose, creating a passion for what you do and finding peace.
More importantly he led them by example.
“The thing that sets him apart and he has taught us, is to choose to enjoy your work. This mentality has helped me get through eight years of college and keeps me progressing as a dentist,” said Nate.
Andy, who earned his MBA and shifted to the business side of dentistry, agrees, “My dad loves dentistry. If he had to do it all over again, I know he would do it the exact same way. It was neat being exposed to that … your dad loved his job and didn’t complain about it and looked forward to going to work.”
Both sons live less than an hour’s drive from the farm: Andy in Macomb Township and Nate in Oxford, Mich.
And they see that as a huge benefit.
“Now I live 45 minutes to an hour south of there and I’m in a subdivision. And for me, I love going up there. It’s the first thing I do when I go up to my parents’ house; I just drive to the back. It’s kind of nice being able to get out and walk around in the woods. So, I make sure that my girls definitely do that to. It’s a lot of fun being up there,” said Andy.
Their 5,000 customers agree. An annual ornament with every tree and hot cocoa, both at no charge, are a few ways the Mutch family shows their gratitude to those who visit.
“When you’ve got that much acreage, it’s such a nice way of sharing it with people. It’s a happy time, people are usually in a wonderful spirit,” added Nancy.
Welcoming kindergarten and preschool students and helping physically and mentally challenged children experience the magic makes it even more special.
“There were 77 out here with either wheelchairs or walkers and cutting down the tree to bring back to school. It was very, very cool,” she said. “Some of the kids I know, they use lifts to get on and off the bus, but the buses drove all the way back to the fields. We were just so surprised. … And the kids just loved it. We’re planning on doing it again this year. So it’s fun.”
Also new in recent years is an outdoor Nativity scene.
“Adding a few things each year has made it something families enjoy doing. And there’s no end in sight,” Pete said.
Perhaps Nate put it best.
“I can probably guess my dad is one of those people who will never actually retire. He might joke that after spending an entire weekend trimming Christmas trees, there is nothing better than doing a relaxing molar root canal on Monday.”