|Searching for perfect tree ... finding something extra|
|Written by Margaret Plevak/For Walworth County Sunday|
|Wednesday, 23 November 2011 16:15|
Robert and Ann Feucht of Evergreen Acres Tree Farm in La Grange Township offer their customers flocked trees, wreaths and boughs in addition to the cut-your-own trees. Terry Mayer/staff photo.
(Read in the e-edition HERE.)
EAST TROY — At Family Trees in East Troy, customers can ride into the fields on a tractor-pulled hay wagon.
Weather permitting, sledding is available at Valley View Tree Farm, just northwest of Burlington in Honey Creek. Extra sleds are available for those who don’t bring their own.
“It’s something we added to draw more people, especially smaller kids,” said owner Brian Stankus, who likened the attraction to pumpkin farmers offering corn mazes and hayrides in the fall.
At Williams Tree Farm in Rockton, customers can eat at the café, buy homemade fudge, walk through an optical illusion tunnel called “The Blizzard,” grab a seat on the kiddie train, ride a pony or check out the animals in the petting zoo and children’s barn.
They also can cut down a Christmas tree.
Farm co-owner Karen Williams says the range of activities reflects a growing trend in the business.
“I think people like to kind of decompress for the holidays and just have some quality time, and we try to offer as much as we can to that end,” she said. “Even if you don’t get a tree, you can still come out here and spend the day.”
Cheryl Nicholson, executive secretary for the Wisconsin Christmas Tree Producers Association, based in Portage, said families have been making memories at Christmas tree farms for years. Growing up on her dad’s tree farm in Poynette, she remembers a family who cut their Christmas tree there each year, and held a picnic among the pines and firs.
“They’d bring all the food, wine, a little table,” she said. “Last year, I was down at the farm and they were there. They don’t have as many family members, but they still do it. The tradition gets started and you just want to continue it.”
The expansion of more farms into family-friendly amenities like refreshments or a visit from Santa is a natural progression, Nicholson thinks. “If you’re going to go outside and spend an hour looking for a tree, you’ll want to come inside and have a cup of hot chocolate,” she said. “It becomes an opportunity for busy families to spend time together and have fun, so I have noticed it’s becoming more common for cut-your-own farms to offer entertainment.”
Beverly Lackey, owner of Family Trees, has noticed it too, especially in some of the calls she got from potential customers last year.
“Obviously they were shopping, but they weren’t shopping for the tree — it seemed like they were shopping for what they could do that was fun,” Lackey said. “They’d say, ‘What do you have to offer? Do you have hayrides or refreshments?’ It surprised me that there were quite a number of people who were looking for entertainment. It was like, ‘If you can’t give us something besides walking out in the field to get a tree, we won’t come there.’”
Tannenbaum Acres, two miles west of Janesville, boasts a gift shop and a petting zoo. A star attraction is Dasher the reindeer, kept on the farm year-round.
Owning a reindeer can be expensive, requiring exotic animal permits, special feed and a knowledgeable vet. But Mary Utzig, co-owner of Tannenbaum Acres, deducts the cost of Dasher’s keep on her taxes as an advertising expense.
She also credits the reindeer for the business’ growth. The farm, which started selling trees in the early 1960s, has a current mailing list of some 1,500 customers, she noted.
It was customers who dictated the opening day at Tannenbaum Acres.
“There’s a tradition people started years ago of putting their turkey in the oven at 5 a.m., then driving over to the farm and waiting in their car with a thermos of hot coffee and a doughnut until it’s daylight and racing into the fields to pick a tree,” Utzig said. “The parking lot is always full early on Thanksgiving morning, but it’s not a tradition I ever wanted to start — I’d just as soon open at 8 a.m.”
Typically most cut-your-own farms open the day after Thanksgiving, but some start even earlier. Many owners estimate they get almost two-thirds of their customers in the first two weekends of opening, although there are always procrastinators.
“I was cooking dinner last Christmas Eve,” said Stankus. “It was 4 p.m., getting dark, and this guy pulls up. ‘I gotta get a tree.’ So I stopped cooking and helped him.”
Christmas tree farmers face a tough row to hoe. “It’s not just putting a tree in the ground and letting it grow,” said Ann Feucht of Evergreen Acres in La Grange Township. “There’s a lot of work to it. And it’s long-term work. It takes seven to 10 years before a tree is of cutting size.”
Weather plays the biggest role for farmers, from crippling summer droughts to Decembers that can swing from balmy to bitterly cold.
“At that time of the year, it’s so unpredictable,” said Helen Schilling, co-owner of Paul’s Tree Farm in Brodhead. “If we get really bad weather on a weekend that’s really important, it will definitely cut into the number of customers we get. Instead of driving to the farm, some people will just go to the corner lot looking for a tree.”
Sometimes it’s the extras that draw customers, like the weekends members of a Newfoundland club bring their dogs to Paul’s Tree Farm. The large dogs drag fresh-cut trees on sleds directly to customers’ cars.
“A few people have said, ‘I just came here to see the dogs.’ And then they’ll buy something else while they’re here,” Schilling said.
The farm also offers a gift shop with hunting and pocket knives, ornaments and handmade crafts.
At Country Side Trees in Walworth, customers can buy sturdy dog bones made from the dropped antlers of elk raised by Glen and Becky Feltham, the farm’s owners.
Becky Feltham said dog bone sales have helped financially since a sideline business of tree sales for landscaping has dropped off.
Many farmers, like Feucht, sell evergreen wreaths and garlands or swags to increase revenue. Evergreen Acres also offers flocked Christmas trees. Although the trees attract a particular kind of buyer, sales for them have remained stable, Feucht said. “It’s the glamour of the tree for some people. It becomes a piece of artwork. It’s a real statement in the home,” she said. “Of course, it doesn’t need to be watered and the needles don’t drop.”
Tree farmers say as long as you keep a fresh Christmas tree watered and away from heat sources in a home, it will last for weeks or even months. But they concede that artificial Christmas trees have made a dent in sales.
“I haven’t come near the sales I used to have before the artificial trees came in in the 1980s,” said Utzig. “It would be nothing to sell 1,300 to 2,000 trees a year before. In the early ’80s it was down to 600 and 700, but it’s come up again.”
Utzig and other farmers have noticed impulse buying on decorations is down, which they attribute to the poor economy. Some offer special prices on less popular long-needle pines or misshapen “Charlie Brown” trees.
“We have, over the past couple of years, lowered our prices because of the economy,” said Lackey. “Because a Christmas tree is a product somebody doesn’t have to have.”
Yet there’s still something appealing about cutting down a Christmas tree out in the woods that makes people return to farms each year. And some tree farmers say it’s an experience that doesn’t need enhancing.
“We’re back away from any roads and just surrounded by woods, so our location gives you that ‘out in the North woods’ kind of feel,” said Joan Chesky of Sugar Creek Tree Farm in Burlington. “It’s that wilderness feel we’ve decided to stay with instead of commercializing it.”