WALWORTH — With snow in October followed by several more snow events into November, many in southern Wisconsin might feel like winter — and Christmas — is coming early this year.
The snow has caused some to embrace the Christmas spirit early, stringing up their colorful holiday lights in between unseasonably cold stretches and buying special gifts for loved ones. That same Christmas spirit made its way to Walworth as Alice in Dairyland, along with fourth-graders from area elementary schools, celebrated the kick-off of Wisconsin’s Christmas tree season on Nov. 14.
Abigail Martin, 72nd Alice in Dairyland, greeted students from four Walworth County elementary schools at Country Side Trees in mid-November. Although the fourth-graders were scheduled to spend the whole morning at the tree farm, learning about Wisconsin agriculture and the Christmas tree industry, those plans were shortened due to cold temperatures and snow, which eluded last year’s ceremonial tree cutting by Alice in Green County.
The tree cutting is held each year at a different Wisconsin Christmas tree farm, in partnership with the Wisconsin Christmas Tree Producers Association. This year’s host, Country Side Trees, is located in Walworth County, the county where the 73rd Alice in Dairyland will be selected in May 2020.
Becky Feltham said this was the first time she and her family had welcomed such a large group of students to their Christmas tree farm, which they’ve operated for the past 40 years. Each year, the Felthams open Country Side Trees the weekend before Thanksgiving and remain open through Dec. 24, closing only for Thanksgiving Day.
“We get a lot of people that weekend before Thanksgiving as people often want to be decorated for both holidays,” she said. “The day after Thanksgiving is busy too. And the following two weekends.”
For the past eight years, the Felthams have been selling Christmas trees at their location on North Walworth Road after moving the business from a nearby location as the trees were beginning to be either too big or too small to sell for the Christmas season. The soil in Walworth County can make it difficult to grow trees, Feltham said, with it taking, on average, about 15 years to grow a fir tree.
“We were going to get out of the business but our daughters wanted to continue,” Feltham said. “They grew up with it and enjoyed it when they were younger. And they wanted to continue to be part of that.
“Hopefully they’ll take over for us.”
Upon graduating high school, daughters Holly (Feltham) Van Dreser and Ruth Feltham both left the tree farm and attended college, with Van Dreser studying marketing and Feltham studying horticulture. Ruth Feltham said she actually switched her major to horticulture after realizing she wanted to come back to her family’s Christmas tree farm.
“I always thought of it as a chore growing up — mowing the lawn, taking care of the trees,” she said. “But when I went to school, I realized I missed being home. So I changed my major and came back.”
Holding a microphone, she described to students how her family uses a tree shaker and baler to prepare Christmas trees for transport back to the homes of their customers. During Christmas tree season, Ruth Feltham now helps her dad, Glen, with all the outside work on the tree farm.
Holly (Feltham) Van Dreser was nearby, snapping photographs of the children as they traveled to a handful of stations that taught them about Wisconsin agriculture and the state’s Christmas tree industry. Along with updating their social media, Van Dreser also assists with the tree farm’s online presence and marketing.
Their father, Glen Feltham, was on hand that morning, too, at his own educational station, sharing with students more about his other business, CST Antlers. He invited the students to touch several elk and deer antlers he had displayed on a table, explaining how he raises elk and uses their shed antlers, along with shed deer antlers, to make dog bones he also sells at Country Side Trees.
Along with selling trees, the Felthams also sell wreaths, garland and boughs, made by hand from fresh materials from their own tree farm. Becky Feltham said the family decided to start making these add-ons in 1990, the year daughter Holly was born.
“It makes us a one-stop-shop to get your tree, wreaths and garlands,” she said.
During the busy holiday season, the Felthams hire a few employees, along with enlisting the help of nieces, nephews and other family members. They have to be ready as their location — about an hour away from the suburbs of Chicago, Milwaukee and Madison — makes them the perfect pick when it comes to Christmas tree selection each year.
“Our customers come from Chicago, Milwaukee, Rockford, and we have our locals too,” Becky Feltham said.
As for trees, any type of fir tree is “the ‘it’ tree” right now, Feltham added. Customers have their pick from Fraser firs, Cananna firs and Balsam firs at Country Side, along with popular Scotch pines, white pines, Colorado spruces and Norway spruces. All trees are pick-your-own, which can make for a special holiday tradition for families each year.
“There are families in Wisconsin working together to raise and grow Christmas trees all year long,” said Martin, 72nd Alice in Dairyland, before cutting her Christmas tree. “I encourage all your friends and family to come to a Christmas tree farm and get a real tree this year.”
She also quizzed the students to see if they recognized the type of tree she was about to cut, and of course, the students quickly identified the Wisconsin native as a pine tree.
Wisconsin is the nation’s fifth-largest Christmas tree producer, with an annual harvest of more than 600,000 trees valued at more than $16 million. There are more than 850 Christmas tree farms in the state, covering more than 23,600 acres.