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Tree farm keeps lawyer in the Christmas spirit

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There is nothing like a Christmas tree to boost holiday spirit.

After attorney Patrick M. Zabrowski lost his father at age 10, he and his four brothers spent subsequent summers working on their uncle's tree farm in Waushara County. Zabrowski, of Foley & Lardner LLP in Milwaukee, says the experience proved emotionally and financially fulfilling. As a teenager, he helped launch what is now Zabrowski Brothers Evergreens, LLC. At its peak, the business planted 15,000 Christmas trees annually.

While the brothers have scaled back the operation in recent years, Zabrowski says that it is still in his blood. He sat down with Wisconsin Law Journal reporter Jack Zemlicka to discuss his motivation for becoming a lawyer, how tree growing impacts his law practice and his favorite holiday tradition.

Wisconsin Law Journal: For almost 40 years you and your brothers have been involved in the Christmas tree growing business. How did you get your start?

Patrick M. Zabrowski: My four brothers and I bought our first piece of land in 1972. Unfortunately, we were all still minors and couldn’t own land so we put it in my mom’s name. When we were a growing business in the 70s and early 80s, we were planting like 10,000 to 15,000 trees a year. That’s how we worked our way through college.

WLJ: What is the scope of the operation now?

Zabrowski: It truly is a hobby for us now. We have a few hundred acres in Waushara County and my brother has a small farm in Lisbon. I used to work every weekend in the summer when I started as an associate here in the 80s. That got a little old, especially when I got married and had kids. Now we plant about 1,000 trees a year. I still go out there on weekends, because it’s nice to get in the Christmas spirit.

WLJ: Have you found there to be an intersection between your law practice and tree growing?

Zabrowski: Without a doubt. The tree business is the reason I became a lawyer. I messed around with contracts and became very interested in real estate. I took my exam to become a broker in 1976 and did that for a year. It was the connection with the land that got me interested in real estate, that got me interested in law, that got me into law school. I’ve been doing real estate law ever since.

WLJ: As a young entrepreneur, did you have any exposure to the legal side of tree growing?

Zabrowski: We found out there were a lot of doctors and lawyers and absentee land owners that got into Christmas trees for the tax breaks. It was a huge tax benefit because you could [claim] as ordinary expense all your expenses, but all of the tree sales were capital gains. So a lot of accountants were selling that to lawyers and they didn’t know anything about growing them.

We charged a nickel a tree. And we went from making $1.10 an hour to pulling in about $3,000 a week during the peak season.

WLJ: As a real estate practitioner, how have you dealt with the economic downturn?

Zabrowski: It’s been a difficult year and a half for anyone in commercial real estate. We talk about the green industry and that’s hot right now. Renewable energy industries are booming and going to be booming. So I’ve shifted a lot of my practice to do wind and solar deals and work with public utilities.

WLJ: There’s a lot of emphasis now on marketing and networking. Has your tree-growing provided a way to expand business contacts?

Zabrowski: I had expected to be able to build more of a financially lucrative legal practice around it. But that’s generally not going to happen with the Christmas tree growers, because they all have their local attorneys or they are self-sufficient and don’t use attorneys.

It does help when it comes to having credibility in a timber deal. [If] somebody’s buying 100,000 acres of timber lands in the Wausau area, to say, ‘this is what I’ve done’ helps.

WLJ: What is tougher, working a tree farm or practicing law?

Zabrowski: Being a lawyer. Don’t get me wrong, when I work eight hours out in the field nowadays, at the end of the day I say ‘thank God I’m a lawyer.’ [But] the legal profession, at times takes more out of you than it gives back.

The tree business is physically a tough job and not lucrative. But if I had my druthers, I’d be a tree grower full time.

WLJ: What type of Christmas tree do you recommend?

Zabrowski: Without a doubt, the Fraser fir is the Cadillac of trees. It’s beautiful. If it’s grown in Wisconsin or other northern climates, the needles last forever. It’s difficult to grow because it needs the right kind of soil and it takes 18 years-plus.

WLJ: What is your favorite holiday tradition?

Zabrowski: We typically have five or six trees in our house. Our tradition is each of our four children has one in their bedroom and then we have a main tree and another one we call the kitchen tree with food and fruit. It’s kind of cool.

WLJ: ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ or ‘National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation’?

Zabrowski: For me, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ But when we’re on a lot and someone brings in a big tree and we bail it in a small bundle, I’ll always use the same joke. I ask the kids if they have seen ‘Christmas Vacation.’ I tell them to make sure they set the tree up next to the window and cut it. I love that scene.

WLJ: If you weren’t an attorney, what other profession might you have chosen?

Zabrowski: Teaching. Part of what I do around here is I do a lot of training of the associates. I taught law school for a few years as an adjunct professor. Ideally, since I was forestry major at UW-Stevens Point, I’d do something like that.

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