by Aliya Hall
For Don Harteloo of Mill Creek Holly Farm, the most rewarding aspect of his operation is the uniqueness of holly, especially during the holiday season when the berries are bright red and “they just glow in the sunshine,” he said.
“What is unique about holly though is that it really comes to the peak of its looks and beauty at Christmas time,” he said. “The rest of the year it’s not all that attractive.”
Mill Creek Holly Farm was purchased by the Harteloo family in 1958, but Don and his wife Sue took over operations 15 years ago. They grow 50% silver variegated and 50% English holly with their 1,500 holly trees on 13 acres, selling both wholesale and retail.
Originally, Don said his father bought the property as a way to get back to his dairy farming roots while still working as a business manager. They switched to holly, he said, after watching a segment about a holly farm on the local news one evening. “And they mentioned ‘It was like picking money off trees,’” he said. So his parents decided, “Wow, that sounds really good.”
At the time, the Harteloos already had one holly tree planted that they received as a gift, and it was thriving on the property. Their first year, they planted between 100 and 200 trees. Don said his parents wanted to set up the holly farm to pass on to their children.
“But there’s a lot of work in it, obviously, and it’s sticky stuff,” he said. “Eventually my brother and sister lost interest.”
Mill Creek Holly Farm crafts arrangements such as wreaths, centerpieces and garlands as well as providing boxes of holly. Many of their retail customer base buys holly boxes and wreaths to give as gifts for friends and families who don’t have access to fresh holly, Don said. He added that they mail out around 800 brochures to repeat and long-term customers, but the farm is also continuing to grow their customer base when they attend conferences and connect with florists.
The biggest challenge the farm faces is Phytophthora, a disease that makes holly leaves fall from the trees. “We have to spray every year for that and constantly during the winter time,” he said. “Every two weeks, we spray.” The disease is most active when the temperature stays between 40º and 50º. To minimize the spread, during summer they vacuum the fallen leaves.
Despite COVID-19, Don said they haven’t seen much impact from the pandemic. He said that the workers are all separated in the field as they work and he leaves it up to individual employees to determine if they want to wear a mask or not. “This business, because it’s outdoors, hasn’t been impacted at all,” he said.
Don recognizes that he is getting older. While he would like his children to step up and carry on the farm’s traditions, he said they haven’t shown any interest. “It’s not something you find a lot of people are interested in because it’s thorny. It’s not easy to work with,” he said, adding that they have been “blessed by some terrific employees.”
One such employee is Manuel (Jose) Manzo, who has served as their farm foreman for around 22 years. He has over 35 years in the holly industry and has brought his experience working for other farms to Mill Creek Holly Farm.
“He’s a humble man and we’re very attached to him,” Don said. “He is probably the best holly wreath maker in the world, undoubtedly, in my mind.”