Cut-your-own Christmas tree farms remain popular across Wisconsin

By: - Friday December 23, 2022 7:00 am

Cut-your-own Christmas tree farms remain popular across Wisconsin

By: - 7:00 am

Summers Christmas Tree Farm in Middleton offers families the chance to head out into a field with a handsaw to find their perfect tree. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

Summers Christmas Tree Farm in Middleton offers families the chance to head out into a field with a handsaw to find their perfect tree. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

There are 385 licensed Christmas tree growers across Wisconsin, according to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture. On farms across the state, families are given the chance to tromp through a field surveying the seemingly endless rows of evergreens in search of the perfect tree. 

Some of those farms, like the Harley Hagstrom Farm in Ashland, are run by hobbyists hoping to keep a quiet tradition. Others offer a full-fledged Christmas experience with wagon rides, hot chocolate and visits with Santa. 

Harley Hagstrom, 85, started planting trees in the corners of his fields about 35 years ago to save the hassle of haying them. Then, 20 years ago when he was retiring, he decided to start selling trees as a hobby. 

Since then, he’s built a seasonal operation with ads in the newspaper advertising “precut, you cut or we cut” options as friends and family come out to help him on the four Saturdays before the holiday — though he says that first Saturday is usually a little slow because it conflicts with deer season. 

“Some people come and tell me they’ve been getting their tree for 20 years and want to keep on,” he says.

Hagstrom’s farm, according to a Wisconsin Examiner analysis, is the state’s most northerly Christmas tree grower, making him the purveyor of pines closer to the North Pole than anyone else in the state. 

Hagstrom didn’t know about his proximity to Santa’s workshop, and doesn’t have a pole outside marking his geographical coordinates, but, he says, “maybe I’ll have to put one up, paint it white.”

Since the COVID-19 pandemic forced people to forgo holiday travel and made outdoor activities more appealing, cut-your-own Christmas tree farms have grown more popular. In 2021, according to the National Christmas Tree Association’s annual survey, heading out into a field with a handsaw trailed only pre-cut trees in the parking lots of chain stores such as Home Depot as the most popular method of finding a tree. Nearly 27% of all trees were cut by hand, the survey found. 

Judy Summers, owner of Summers Christmas Tree Farm in Middleton, says that sales numbers have stayed steady since the pandemic, even though some of the trees weren’t as tall this year as in the past. Instead, she says, families have been dedicatedly searching through her acres of fields looking for their perfect tree.

Rows of Christmas trees at Summers Christmas Tree Farm in Middleton. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

“During COVID we were really busy, as were other farms,” she says. “People who normally would’ve gone home, they couldn’t go so they had no tree, no lights, no nothing. We were pretty well inundated with people and a lot of cutting was done. It gave people a chance to get out in the wide open spaces. As we’ve moved forward through the next couple years, [we had] a steady stream of people. This past year, the height, a lot of people are still looking for tall trees and unfortunately we didn’t have tall trees. Every tree needs a home because that’s what they’re there for, to brighten up people’s Christmas.”

Summers, who was speaking over the sound of laughter in the farm’s shed, says her family is happy to be a part of other families’ traditions. 

“We’re always hopeful that everyone will have a wonderful Christmas with presents and goodies and we can all get fat and sassy in January,” she says.  

For farms that have been in business for several decades, part of the joy of every busy season is seeing customers who came as children start to come with their own kids.

Christmas trees get shaken and tied at Summers Christmas Tree Farm in Middleton. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

“We have a lot of families that come out, it’s very much a tradition,” Robin Scharlau of Pleasant Valley Tree Farm in Elk Mound says. “We’ve been in business for 30 years. I just had a family the other day that was just starting a tradition with their kids because it was something they’d done as a young couple. It’s about the experience of getting together as a family.” 

Scharlau’s husband started the farm with his parents and brother, and she says the family is blessed to be able to play a part in people’s celebration of the holiday, even if the search can sometimes become more of a quest. Scharlau says when she was  growing up her family always went to cut their own tree, but her mother had a very particular idea of what the right tree looked like, so the kids would leave their mittens on trees to mark the “maybes” and hope they’d be able to find them again. 

One year, Scharlau says, her family went to three different farms looking for the ideal tree. 

“A lot of times families may not remember the presents you got but perhaps remember an experience that associates with being together with your family,” she says. “We’re very blessed to be able to help with the celebrations of Christmas. We feel very lucky to do that.” 

As the weekend before the holiday kicked off, growers across the state reported that sales had started to slow down for the year — a trend that wasn’t helped by the fresh coats of ice and snow that covered much of the state. While the visual of snow covered pines is pretty, it makes it much tougher for a family to find the right tree.

A family takes in their haul at the Summers Christmas Tree Farm in Middleton. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

“This morning a couple came in at about 8:15 and were ready to put the first footprints in the snow and shake every tree,” Summers says. “Right now, it’s absolutely beautiful.”

With sales as high as ever, growers said they were glad that their trade has perhaps outlasted the predicted takeover of plastic and metal. 

“I went to college 40 years ago and sheared trees to work my way through college but they were already saying Christmas trees were going to go away and fake ones were going to take over,” Dan Rogalla of Rogalla’s Choose and Cut Christmas Trees in Wausau says. “That never happened.”

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Henry Redman
Henry Redman

Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.