by Gail March Yerke
On a sunny, crisp November morning in rural Walworth, WI, a Christmas tree farm features a rolling patchwork quilt of evergreens visible in every direction. From sections of that year’s newly planted seedlings to areas of full size, ready-to-cut trees, it’s home to Becky and Glen Feltham’s Country Side Trees Christmas tree farm. Daughters Holly and Ruth help with the family U-cut operation located just north of the Illinois border. Don’t let their rural location fool you, however; Country Side Trees’s customer base triangulates from the greater Chicago area to the metro Milwaukee suburbs and on to the Madison state capital in south-central Wisconsin.
Traveling down the winding gravel driveway, farm buildings soon come into view. A rustic-style gift shop greets visitors entering the 100-car parking area with an open pole barn shelter nearby. Besides offering gifts, colorful holiday attire, ornaments and home decorations, the gift shop doubles as a checkout hub for tree, wreath and greenery purchases. Unique items found in the gift shop are their elk antlers and dog treats. With the antler sheds provided by their herd every spring, the Felthams spun off CST Antlers as a separate business. Elk products are sold at the gift shop as well as online.
Just behind the gift shop is the “Christmas Tree Corral,” where customers can opt to select precut trees leaning against large, rough-hewn timber fencing. The open shelter is the staging area for purchased trees as well as a retail display for wreaths and roping. Like many full service Christmas tree retailers, once a tree is selected for purchase it goes first to a tree shaker to eliminate any loose needles and then off to the baler to wrap it in protective netting for easier transport. Becky explained, “We use a three-part ticket system. The customer removes the two lower parts of the tree’s price ticket and brings it into the gift shop. They then bring back one part of the ticket along with their receipt to pick up their tree.”
When asked what made them to decide to start a Christmas tree farm, Becky said, “Glen became interested in tree farming while helping at a friend’s Christmas tree farm during the holiday season. We married in 1985 and started Country Side Trees 10 years later. When we first started our business he was still working in the airline industry and has since retired.”
Beginning with 10,000 seedlings planted each of the first years on 200 acres, they now plant 3,000 trees annually on their current 75-acre retail location. The Feltham family produces their own fresh wreaths, garland and greenery for the holiday season. While the majority of their seasonal income is generated from on-site sales, they also supply a few wholesale customers including a nearby resort and conference center and area garden centers.
Tree varieties grown include scotch and white pine, Colorado blue spruce, balsam and Fraser fir. “Fir trees are the most popular and also the most difficult for us to grow in our heavy clay soil,” said Becky. While their customers may think they only work during the holiday season, Becky outlined what their typical calendar year brings. “January and February is for equipment repairs and in March and April we’re prepping the fields and planting seedlings. May through October is mowing and spraying as needed, with most shearing done June through August, with Ruth helping Glen in the fields. In October and November we are cutting boughs and making wreaths and roping. Sometimes I wonder if people just think the trees grow themselves.”
Their best-selling wreath is the 24-inch mixed white pine and fir combination, selling for $28. Their U-cut tree pricing varies by height, ranging from $30 for a five-foot tree to $125 for 12 feet and taller. Trees are measured from the base to the tip for pricing categories. “This year most of our trees are up to eight feet in height,” she noted. Newer to the industry, the farm also has trees in bright pink or blue. Unlike colored flocking that would be done closer to when a tree is selected, a paint product is applied in late summer/early autumn in the field when temperatures are warmer.
Just down the road from their retail location, Ruth and her crew started producing the first wreaths and roping of the season. Her staff was operating the roping wire machine while carefully grouping the mixed greens to be added. There was an artful rhythm to the process as the wire continued moving and just the right mixture of evergreens was attached. “We produce about 10,000 feet of roping each year,” said Ruth. Freshly cut boughs are brought in from their fields each day. “The unheated side of the building keeps our finished product cool and out of the sun and wind,” she said. Wreaths produced onsite range from 16 inches in diameter up to 54 inches. The farm also offers fresh-cut bundles of red-twig, balsam and Fraser fir, Colorado spruce and white pine.
Holly helps run the retail gift shop. She also keeps their website and Facebook page current with special events for the season. This year includes the weekend with Newfies (Newfoundland dogs) that pull customers’ trees out of the fields, a visit from Elsa from “Frozen” and, of course, Santa. Typical visitors during the Christmas season are families usually spending at least an hour at the farm.
Long-time members of the Wisconsin Christmas Tree Producers Association, Country Side Trees hosted the group’s summer meeting this past year. The association promotes real Christmas trees, wreaths and greenery through marketing and member education programs. When asked for any tips for those considering starting a U-cut Christmas tree farm, Becky replied, “Patience. You have to be in it for the long haul. It’s not a yearly crop and it takes years before you get a return.”
She didn’t hesitate when asked what her favorite part of the business was. “Seeing the families come back each year is my favorite, sometimes three generations,” she said. “A couple came in last year with their newborn baby and told us that they wanted to start their own family tradition.”
According to the National Christmas Tree Association, 27 million fresh Christmas trees were sold in the U.S. in 2017. U-cut tree farms across the country are offering what more customers are looking for this holiday season. They are enjoying the holiday experience and starting their own family traditions found at Christmas tree farms like Country Side Trees.