Cut-your-own tree farms grow family traditions
As the hustle and bustle of Thanksgiving dinners and late-night shopping endeavors fade away, the season of winter wonderlands, cozy evenings and twinkling lights makes its entrance. To welcome this jovial season, many families around the Midwest bundle up and head to local Christmas tree farms to partake in the lasting tradition of cutting the perfect tree.
In Northeast Wisconsin, live Christmas trees are a widely celebrated tradition: over 700,000 Christmas trees were sold in 2017, according to the agriculture census and the Wisconsin Christmas Tree Producers Association (WCTPA). When looking for the perfect farm to find your tree, choose from the 858 tree farms throughout Wisconsin, around 350 farms being licensed.
However, a lot of action takes place behind the scenes before you come to cut and experience the beauty of Wisconsin’s great evergreens. Nestled in the forests and rolling hills of New London, Mosquito Hill Tree Farm represents the natural and simple beauty behind cutting your own tree. The 20-acre tree farm has been family-run for 30 years by the Vorachek family, focusing solely on providing cut-your-own Christmas trees.
“Come, cut your tree, walk around, make yourself at home, and then get some hot chocolate on the way home. Make a day of it,” says owner Lori Vorachek.
Located close by in Weyauwega, Flease’s Tree Farm offers a similar no-bells-and-whistles, genuine cut-your-own tree experience as well as pre-cut trees. Bob Flease started the farm in 1988. According to his son Mike Flease, who co-owns the farm with his brother, Steve, the 40-acre farm runs on the love of family, friends and neighbors, bringing a small-town atmosphere to their customers during the holiday season.
“We try to get the neighborhood kids to help us. When the season starts, our families and the neighbor kids help us out,” he says. “My parents still like to come over and see all of the people; they’ve gotten to know them through the years.”
Further north in Oconto, the Yeska family is in their second year running Whispering Pines Tree Farm. In 2019, they purchased the farm from Dave and Mary Vanderbilt and have been getting used to running it themselves. They offer cut-your-own and pre-cut trees, and also have a tree lot in De Pere. With a gift shop, Santa’s workshop, train rides and other fun activities, Whispering Pines provides a cozy and charming Christmas escape, yet Megan and Carolann Yeska, wives of brothers Ken and Randy Yeska, say they truly “focus on simple treasures…We don’t need to entertain [customers] – it’s their tradition.”
With over 100 acres of trees, Whispering Pine’s offers consistently diverse, beautiful trees and a welcoming family atmosphere.
“Christmas tree growers are a very small family,” Megan points out. “It mirrors the whole reason that people celebrate Christmas. It’s to celebrate the gifts we’ve been given and our family.”
Though many Christmas tree farms across Wisconsin vary in size and structure, the foundation of caring and nurturing trees can be found throughout all farms. Differing from farming other crops, Christmas trees are labor-intensive, requiring years of personal attention and care.
“You grow crops, but you nurture Christmas trees,” Megan says.
The growing process begins in early spring by cleaning the fields from any brush that the previous season left behind. At the same time, Mosquito Hill Tree Farm explains how they remove stumps and plant a tree next to each tree that was cut down. Vorachek reveals that she gets the joy of planting the trees, and that she and her husband “fertilize every tree by hand.”
Come summer, cutting and spraying grass to let young trees grow, fertilizing and de-coning the fraser firs to prevent a loss of nutrients all keep the farms busy and bustling.
Other factors can be a threat to the survival of the newly planted trees: too much rain drowns the weak roots, lack of rain starves them, late spring frost freezes them, and pests can destroy the whole farm if not properly contained. It’s a fickle business, with many damaging factors outside the grower’s control.
“This year was perfect, and then in August we went a whole month without rain, and it was 90 degrees almost everyday, so we probably lost half of what we planted,” explains Vorachek. “Usually we lose 25 percent of what we plant just for whatever reason.”
When summer begins, the demanding duty of trimming or shearing the trees commences. The Flease’s rely on the help of long time friends, North Countree Christmas and their team of high school helpers to come shear the trees. In record timing, Flease reveals their entire 40 acres of trees can be sheared by hand in one day. This timing is significant considering each acre of a tree field contains around 1,500 trees.
At Mosquito Hill, Vorachek reveals, “My husband and I, we do it all…we trim every tree by hand.”
While this seasonal process seems time consuming, the average tree takes eight to 10 years to reach full growth, meaning years of thoughtful care and dedication goes into each tree.
“It’s a job,” says Flease. “It’s a lot of work; trees don’t just grow that perfect by themselves, it takes time to grow them and all the effort.”
In Wisconsin and at the tree farms mentioned, variations of white pine, balsam and fraser fir claim the top spots for most popular Christmas trees. Mike Flease explains the special popularity of balsam and fraser firs – balsam for its fresh pine aroma and fraser fir for its needle retention.
After the trees are properly cared for, the work to prepare the farms for the upcoming Christmas season, starting the Friday after Thanksgiving, begins, ensuring the perfect experience awaits all eager families when they arrive.
At Mosquito Hill and Flease’s, the beauty of a tradition built on memories and family shows in the cut-your-own options, personal assistance if needed, and guarantee to be welcomed into the farm family at each location.
At other farms, a one-stop shop for many Christmas traditions can be found in addition to the perfect environment, such as at Whispering Pines. Their gift shop offers thousands of ornaments, sweet treats, other tabletop gifts and homemade wreaths. Santa’s workshop can also be found on the farm.
After experiencing these merry activities, families can take a train ride down to the fields to pick their perfect Christmas tree. The wide variety of family farms in Northeast Wisconsin are sure to bring magnificent pines and treasured memories.
Take it from longtime visitor Rachel Reckner of Neenah. She, her parents and three brothers visit Whispering Pines each year and dress up and act as Christmas movie characters.
“Because of our busy schedules we never all do anything as a family…Since it has become a tradition, I feel like it’s been a time for our family to relax and have fun.”
Reckner and her family make a weekend of finding outfits, watching movies and spending the day at the farm. They usually end with dinner, visiting Santa at the mall and putting up the tree the next day.
“Our favorite thing to do was get the Christmas tree before, but now it’s something more than that,” Reckner says. “We share laughter with the people around us and within our own family. We look forward to it every year. Christmas is about joy and, hopefully, during this hard time… we can still do it this year.”
Combined with local families and helpers, visitors get to experience heartfelt connection: the true joy of the season. Especially in the fast-paced, convenient society we live in today, traveling into the middle of the trees, searching for the one that catches your eye and physically cutting down the symbol of Christmas with family gathered around is sure to instill a lasting impact and a cherished memory.
Flease sums the value behind this tradition simply: “You get to breathe the fresh air, cut the tree down, take it home, decorate it, Santa comes, and boy! We got all these presents! They remember that. It’s memories.”
According to WCTPA, all farms and trees are 100 percent local, so you’re helping fuel your community as well as your family tradition. In addition, nature, wildlife and the air we breathe is greatly benefitted by tree farms.
“Christmas is often about nostalgia. It has become so focused on merchandising,” says Carolann Yeska. “This tradition is just about coming [together] as a family.”
Tree Day Tips
- Dress for the weather: it’s colder than you think, so layers are helpful.
- Know your tree size. They’re bigger than you think, so don’t overestimate the height of your ceilings.
- Ask for guidance. Farm staff is happy to help.
- No tree is perfect – that’s what decorations are for.
- A fresh-cut tree stump allows for maximum water absorption.
- Water is key. Never let your fresh-cut tree run dry.