ALMENA — Thanksgiving turkeys are yet to be carved, but it’s already beginning to look a lot like Christmas at Snowshoe Valley Christmas Tree Farm north of Almena.
Like a pair of Santa’s most industrious elves, Joe and Sue Clark already are weeks deep into preparations to welcome people in search of the perfect centerpiece for holiday gatherings.
With some 11,000 trees on 10 acres from which to choose, they’re likely to find it at Snowshoe Valley.
“The best part … is all your customers are coming here and they’re happy; you always have happy customers,” Joe said. “It’s a memory they won’t forget, and you see the generations coming back.”
Joe said his parents bought this Barron County farm when he was 12 years old, operating it as a small dairy. When Joe took over, he modified the barn into a shop, keeping seven stanchions “just in case.”
But it wasn’t long before notions of milking cows were relegated to the past. He started planting trees in 1987 and offered his first Christmas trees for sale in 2001.
“When we bought the farm, the fields where trees are were all ag,” Joe said, adding that they rented the land out to a neighbor for corn, hay and other crops.
Just across the Hay River, which runs through the farm, the Clarks planted a few trees on some idle land.
“We thought we’d sell a few and give the kids something to do,” he said, “maybe make a little money.”
They built a bridge that their guests could cross to get their Christmas tree, calling it “Mistletoe Bridge.” Joe calls that field “the wild side.”
“People just love going over there, the adventure of going over there,” Joe said.
From there, the Clarks gradually added more trees throughout their 108-acre farm, taking fields out of typical agricultural use and planting a patch of trees at a time.
They built trails through the woods and along the river, intending to open them up to guests for snowshoeing. They used to advertise the availability of a sledding hill, too, but Joe said they can’t always rely on having enough snow for that.
Planting for the future
Running a Christmas tree farm has been a natural fit for Joe, who has a college degree in forestry and did hardwood and pulpwood management consulting.
“I like working outdoors,” he said.
He said they usually sell a couple hundred Christmas trees annually, with sales spread out over the three or four weekends between Thanksgiving and Christmas. People can cut their own or buy a pre-cut tree.
“We usually sell more trees every year,” he said. “It keeps growing.”
Turnout at the farm is heavily dependent on the weather; if it’s warm or there’s fresh snow, the Clarks can expect a crowd. Bitter cold is a deterrent, as is a Green Bay Packers football game. But shortly after the game ends, they can count on a steady stream of people.
“People come in swarms,” Joe said.
Joe said most of their customers are from the local area, but they also see a lot of lake cabin residents from the surrounding area.
The Clarks plant more trees every year, and Joe said, “Now, almost all the fields are full.”
Fir trees are most prevalent at the farm, with the biggest sellers being Fraser and Balsam. Joe said he’s been happy with his Nova Scotia seed source, which has yielded some trees with a blue hue. They also have a few Scotch pine and blue spruce.
To help ensure a healthy crop every year, they plant trees from a wide variety of seed sources. Diversification works to stem losses from early budding and winter burn, Joe said.
Along with shearing, or shaping, the trees, the Clarks strive to keep weed pressure down to maintain good air flow beneath the trees, which helps prevent disease and fungus growth.
Joe said the plentiful moisture this fall put his crop in good shape going into the winter dormancy.
To help minimize needle loss when they get their tree home, Joe recommends people cut off a half-inch from the trunk just before setting it up, especially if they harvest their tree on a warm day. The tree will begin producing sap, sealing off the log, and never take up much water.
This year, the Clarks calculated that they had enough extra trees that they could sell 200 wholesale for the first time to St. Joseph Catholic Church in Rice Lake.
“You have to watch it,” Joe said of wholesaling. “It’s something you can’t correct. You’re better off to have extra trees than not enough. It takes eight to 10 years to adjust for it.”
With an ample supply of Christmas trees to sell, the Clarks have begun harvesting branches to make garland ropes. These branches usually come from buck-rubbed trees or trees not good enough to sell.
Joe said the trickiest part of making garland is ensuring a good supply of uniform-sized branches. He also prepares piles of branches for Sue to use in her handmade wreaths. She can make roughly three wreaths in an hour.
Snowshoe Valley makes about 1,000 feet of garland and 100 wreaths each year, according to Joe.
Joe, who has a sawmill, also makes cutting boards and wooden spoons to sell in the warming house, where they also have a small vintage treestand collection. Guests who bring in an antique treestand can get a discount.
To raise the fun factor for children, the Clarks offer wagon rides and hide large Christmas ornaments among the trees. Kids can turn the ornaments in for a treat.
“That’s the No. 1 thing when they get out of their parents’ vehicles,” Joe said. “They’re looking for an ornament. … It’s the best marketing thing we came up with.”
While Snowshoe Valley Christmas Tree Farm is a two-person operation most of the year, the Clarks enlist the help of their family and friends during the hectic holiday season. Working together on the farm has become a beloved family tradition, Joe said.
“We’re as busy as we want to be,” he said. “We don’t want to get really commercialized. We want to stay low-key.”