Illinois Christmas tree farmers say demand is high this holiday season

Did you buy a precut Christmas tree or cut one down with your family this year? If you did the latter, chances are you got in before product ran out, said some northern Illinois Christmas tree farmers fielding high demand this holiday season.

Nancy Guerra has worked at Wessels’ Family Farm for longer than she can remember, and by her accounts, Christmas tree sales this year are as good as they’ve ever been.

Wessels’ Family Farm does not offer “you-cut” Christmas trees, where customers venture out into the grove and cut down their tree of choice. The business’ selection of precut trees are highly visible to those passing by on Route 23 in DeKalb, however.

“I think we’ve had a good season,” said Guerra, 56. “We always start out busier, and then a lot of people are getting decorated and getting ready, and then here toward the end, closer to Christmas, it’s a little slower. Most people have their house decked out. We have some that are waiting for college kids to get home.”

Christmas tree farmers across northern Illinois said sales this year are booming, despite a dry spring season and continued inflation.

According to the Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences Illinois Extension, 19th century Americans chopped down Christmas trees from their local forests. Today, however, most real Christmas trees in the U.S. are grown as sustainable crops on farms.

Generally, that’s the case for precut and you-cut trees in Illinois, too.

Robert Richardson of Richardson Christmas Tree Farm at 9407 Richardson Road, Spring Grove, started farming the holiday staple when his dad planted trees in 1981 and they were due for harvest five years later.

“It started out slow, like lots of folks, just selling a couple hundred trees for a while,” Richardson said. “We gradually have expanded that, and we expect to sell 6,000-plus [trees] this year.”

The weekend after Thanksgiving was the busiest of the year, Richardson said. He said he suspects that’s usual for most Christmas tree farms.

Bill Holesinger, co-owner of Timber Lane Tree Farm at 7250 Garden Plain Road in Fulton, said his you-cut tree fields had to be closed for the season when they sold 1,000 trees two days after Thanksgiving.

“We just have precuts left,” he said. “We’re probably about four years out where we can leave our field open longer, but we got hit pretty hard the last few years, and I just can’t keep up. So we’ve had to plant more acres.

“The past three years we sold over 2,000 trees each year. We just can’t quite keep up with our fields, so we’re planting more to try, but that’s a six- to eight-year process.”

Holesinger said Timber Lane Tree Farm wasn’t particularly affected by the summer drought. However, he knows of a nearby farm that lost a few saplings that had yet to grow their roots.

“This home farm here survived it pretty good so far,” Holesinger said. “We did get some rain here this fall, so hopefully they’ll be OK going through the winter time.”

Rob Wessels, owner of Wessels’ Family Farm, pulls out one of the available trees at Wessels’ Family Farm Market in DeKalb. Mark Busch/Shaw Media

Wessels’ Family Farm in DeKalb trucks in trees from Wisconsin, so owner Rob Wessels said he isn’t worried about keeping trees around for the next year.

Wessels, 76, said he thinks he saw an uptick in consumer interest in real trees this holiday season. He’s also noticed that over the years, tree-hunting seems to be more of a family affair.

“It seems to go with family,” he said. “A lot of times when a family gets a little baby, they decide they want to get a real tree so they can start some family traditions with a real tree. That’s kind of a fun thing.”

According to the Illinois Christmas Tree Association — a passion project Richardson and his wife, Carol, created to help Christmas tree farms in Illinois — cutting a fresh inch off the bottom of a tree just before securing it to a stand, and subsequently giving it warm water, is the best way to keep the tree looking and smelling fresh.

George Richardson walks through a barn filled with precut Christmas trees at the Richardson Christmas Tree Farm in McHenry County. Michelle Meyer/Shaw Media

The organization has 34 Christmas tree farms listed on its website, but Richardson said the number of member farms has grown to more than 50. Annual membership costs $70.

Richardson said he’s seen the Christmas tree farm landscape change over the past four decades. He doesn’t have to watch Christmas movie classics to imagine pop-up tree shops in the parking lots of malls and retail stores. He can remember those days.

Richardson said he thinks there’s fewer tree farmers around.

“The demand is there. It’s just hard to meet,” he said before mentioning the numerous small tree farms he’s seen close.

At Richardson Christmas Tree Farm, however, he said he’s been able to increase growth.

“We had the luxury of having enough land that we could increase our production and try to keep pace with the demand, which was hard to do,” Richardson said. “For a few years we kind of got backwards. We were selling too many trees.

“We were selling next year’s trees this year, and so we kind of go behind on our production. We’ve been trying to catch up.”

Rob Wessels, owner of Wessels’ Family Farm, and his grandson Davey Wessels, 17, from South Paris, Maine, work on the deck Dec. 12 at Wessels’ Family Farm Market in DeKalb. Mark Busch/Shaw Media

The Illinois Extension lists 21 types of tree species commonly used as Christmas trees, including types of cedar, fir, pine and spruce trees.

Richardson said he thinks supply issues might come from consumers wanting one type of tree over another.

“There’s been a lot of talk the last several years particularly about the Christmas tree shortage, and that’s kind of true, I admit,” he said. “Personally, I kind of think part of that is because many of the magazine or media outlets are going to tell people they should plant or they should choose a Fraser fir for their Christmas trees.

“They’re great trees, but in my area (McHenry County) they will grow here, but they won’t thrive here. We do plant some Frasers. They tend to be kind of narrow and a little bit thinner, but there are alternatives to the Fraser. A Canaan fir is a cousin to the Fraser, and it grows better here.”

Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.