by Sally Colby
When Peter Swanson was young, his father worked as a lumberjack. Peter recalled that during the two-week deer season, lumbering operations were shut down and there was no work.
“He cut Christmas trees,” said Peter, describing what his father did through deer season. “My brother and sister and I dragged the trees to the road and the men who owned the Christmas tree farm came with semi-trucks and wrappers. That was our ‘Christmas Club’ that gave us money to buy Christmas presents.”
Although Peter’s family wasn’t involved with growing Christmas trees, his childhood experience stuck with him. Years later, in 1989, Peter wanted to plant Christmas trees on a large property in Niagara, WI, owned by his wife’s grandparents. Newly married, Peter took out a loan to purchase the seedlings. As he learned about growing Christmas trees, Peter relied on guidance from a coworker who was familiar with Christmas tree cultivation. With help from his father and brother, Peter’s first planting included 5,000 young seedlings. Since Peter was in the restaurant business, when the first trees matured, he took cut trees to his restaurant to sell.
But Peter wanted to offer more than Christmas trees – he wanted to provide a memorable experience for restaurant guests. “About 10 years ago I was raising reindeer,” said Peter. “I took them to the patio at the restaurant and people could have breakfast with Santa and the reindeer.” The reindeer were so popular that Pete’s sister Rochelle Lidback suggested he move the whole operation, including tree sales, to the farm where the trees were grown. Because the restaurant was in a high-visibility location, Peter was sure no one would visit his farm in the small town of Niagara for a tree, but Rochelle insisted people would come.
“All I had was Christmas trees and a new barn I was finishing,” said Peter, describing the start of Swanson’s Big Red Barn. “The barn was jammed full of people, and we had burgers, hot dogs, pulled pork and candy, and Rochelle had some gift items. It was a huge success.”
Although Peter is no longer raising reindeer, many guests remember them from Santa’s breakfast at the restaurant. Since the reindeer were so popular, Peter is hoping to add them to the farm again. Last year, the camel he rented for the Christmas season was a big hit.
Peter decided to build a candy shack, so he and his sons spent the summer constructing a log shack. “We filled it with candy and there were so many people in there the doors never closed,” he said. “In the meantime, I wanted to add to the barn and put a full commercial kitchen with everything necessary to prepare a variety of foods.”
The next project was a gift shop, then an addition to the gift shop stocked and operated by Rochelle. Peter sold the candy shack and built a new sweet shop with a bakery, coffee shop and candy.
One year, Peter was working with an advertising company to have signs made for the farm’s Christmas season events. “They couldn’t believe we didn’t have events in fall,” said Peter. “They said we’d draw a lot of people but I didn’t believe him.” But Peter took a chance and was pleasantly surprised at the results.
The Swansons started their first autumn season with six acres of pumpkins and added more seasonal activities each year. Peter wanted to provide more for guests to do, so he purchased a train from an amusement park and built a train station. Today, guests who arrive for fall activities can enjoy the farm’s corn maze, wagon rides, go-kart track, jumping pillow, pumpkin bowling and fire pits.
For seasonal activities, guests check in at a Snoopy dog house. An admission fee allows children unlimited access to most of the attractions. “This year we built a game room in the bottom of the barn,” said Peter. “That’s our new attraction.” An assortment of food prepared on site allows the Swansons to manage the quality and quantity of what’s available, including burgers, hot dogs, homemade pizza, spiral potato chips, cheese curds and popcorn as well a selection of beverages.
After Halloween, the family takes a week off before beginning to prepare for the Christmas season. “We put our wreath-making equipment together and get pine boughs,” said Peter. “My sister Rochelle, a couple of her friends, Joey and I use greens to make wreaths, kissing balls, candy canes and crosses.”
The main property of Swanson’s Big Red Barn features 30 acres of Christmas trees, primarily Balsam, Fraser and Canaan firs with some white pine and blue spruce for customers who prefer those species. Since Fraser fir is a customer favorite, Peter grows that species on a separate property with an eight-foot deer fence to keep deer from destroying the crop.
Peter admitted he didn’t know a lot about growing Christmas trees when he started, especially where to source good seedlings. “Now my son Joey has a nursery where he starts seedlings,” said Peter.
Joey said starting a seedling nursery was a good solution to the problem of retaining a reliable source of young trees. “I work with two plug growers in Washington and get one-year-old trees,” he said. “The first time we bought them, we only got 15,000 – it was what they had left. After that, we kept buying more each year.”
After growing Fraser, Canaan and Balsam firs, white pine and white spruce seedlings in his nursery for two years, Joey packages them and sells them as three-year-old trees. He ships them out to growers throughout the U.S. between April and early May. Today, Joey grows 250,000 seedlings in his nursery. About 3,000 seedlings are used to replant Swansons’ own stock for their U-cut and wholesale trees.
Peter reflected on how much the family’s venture has grown in a short time. “When Rochelle talked with me about moving our Christmas events out here, I realized people love to come out with their family to cut down a tree,” said Peter. “That was nine years ago, and we’ve really grown since then.”
Visit Swanson’s Big Red Barn online at ChristmasBigRedBarn.com.