Beyond the Barn: Christmas Tree Farming for the Patient Heart
Owner Rex Miller had the idea that warm chestnuts would add to a merry experience for his customers, so he planted some chestnut trees and this marks the first year three of the trees are old enough to produce the delightful nuts.
Miller had that idea about 20 years ago.
This lengthy process is symbolic of the kind of patience and vision it takes to operate a Christmas tree farm and Miller seems to have mastered both of those skills. He happily explained his work and his industry as he slow-roasted a few nuts over a gas fire pit in the newly opened “nut house” at his farm.
Miller has operated the tree farm in Rio, Wisconsin for about 25 years, but has lived on that land his whole life. His dad originally operated a mink farm on the property and had a few red pines planted for soil conservation. Each year, he sold a few of the trees to neighbors at Christmastime. Seeing that planted an idea – literally – in his son’s mind.
Miller earned a natural resources degree from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and has worked part-time in conservation for many years. He saw Christmas tree farming as a way to keep the family farm and operate a successful business. His 20 acres of trees include various firs, pines and spruces.
Miller purchases the trees as transplants that are about four years old. He buys the transplants from a nursery in Michigan that has a climate similar to southern Wisconsin. Miller cuts down the stumps in his fields where trees were previously cut and places the transplants in those spots. After that, it takes seven to 10 years for the trees to grow to the average Christmas tree height, so Miller said the tree in your home is likely between 10 and 15 years old.
Each year, Miller sells about 1,500 Christmas trees, mostly during the first couple of Saturdays in December. In fact, he said as many as 500 trees are sold on a single “big day.” The farm also sells about 1,000 wreaths made mostly from the boughs leftover from trees that are sold.
He estimated about 75 percent of those trees are cut-your-own. The rest of his customers prefer the pre-cut trees, which Miller generally purchases from another area grower for sale at his farm. He said about half of his customers come back each year, while the other half find him by simply googling Christmas tree farms in the area.
“I love this time of year,” he said. “Especially seeing the little kids.”
On December weekends, in addition to the chestnuts, visitors can enjoy hot apple cider, meet Santa Claus, and take a horse-drawn wagon ride around the farm – all part of a cheerful, memorable experience. Miller said that’s an important component of a successful business.
“If you focus on money, you eventually go broke,” he said. “You focus on the customer and eventually you’ll make money.”
Although the rest of his year isn’t nearly as busy, he still has a fair amount of work to do. April is his second-busiest month as he cleans up the grounds, sets the transplants and applies a nitrogen fertilizer to the fields. The trees need to be trimmed to their perfect cone shapes yearly, a process Miller described as “more of an art than a science.” He spends a few hours each day during the summer trimming trees. He also applies an herbicide to control weeds and mows the fields at least two or three times a year.
Different tree species have different needs too. For example Fraser firs develop unsightly cones that need to be picked in May. White and scotch pines stop producing chlorophyll in the fall and begin to fade. Miller applies a green colorant to about 100 trees to help them maintain the desired shade. Like most farmers, weather is Miller’s biggest challenge as excessive heat, too much rain or drought can all have significant impacts on the trees.
Miller spends time networking with and learning from other growers too. He is a long-time member of the Wisconsin Christmas Tree Producers Association. He attends an annual conference in the summer to learn about topics such as pest control, new consumer trends and more. He also attends a few field days and Christmas tree contests.
His days may be filled with trees, but, ironically, his own house isn’t. Miller laughed as he explained he often forgets to put up a tree in the house. He said he usually just takes one that was on display in his barns and puts it in the house on Christmas Eve.
But that doesn’t mean he’s lacking any Christmas spirit. His attitude is as bright as the red “Miller’s Christmas Trees” sweatshirt he wears.
He said, “I get Christmas for two months before Christmas is actually here.”
Starting Strong - Calf Care