Christmas tree farms cater to family outings during pandemic
At family-owned Christmas tree farms like Enzenauer Evergreens in Kenyon, Minn., business is booming from longtime customers with Christmas tree traditions and new customers starting their own.
KENYON, Minn — Donna and Scott Enzenauer, owners of Enzenauer Evergreens, planted their first Christmas trees in 1991.
Before that day, the two considered what else they could do on their 20-acre farm besides grow crops. The operation was turning out to be a difficult one on their small parcel of land, which their neighbors lent them equipment to harvest.
"It got to the point where it was hard for them to get their big machinery in here," Donna Enzenauer said. "Scott said 'why don't we plant (Christmas) trees? And if it works it works, otherwise we'll have some nice woods around the house.'"
Scott Enzenauer said they picked Christmas trees because "it's not a commodity" like corn and soybeans, and it offered the opportunity for more contact with families.
They sold their first trees eight years later.
It was a learning curve for the couple, said Scott Enzenauer, as the industry requires producers to plant now what their customer base will want seven to 10 years from now.
"We made all the mistakes," he said. "Like trying to grow certain trees we can't, putting in too many in the beginning — it took some time to get the feel for that."
This year was a "really good" grow season, he said, with no hard rain or hail in the month of June when the trees are growing.
"The trees look really good this year," he said.
Donna Enzenauer said the type of tree they grow and sell the most at their farm in Kenyon is a Bracketed Balsam fir, which is a cross between a Balsam fir and a Fraser fir. She said the soil on their farm is "too heavy" for Fraser trees, which grow best in sandy soils.
"Most people can't tell the difference," she said.
Around three new seedlings are planted for each tree that's cut on the farm.
Several precautions were taken this year at Enzenauer Evergreens to protect customers from potential COVID-19 exposure.
"We're just trying to practice minimum contact," Scott Enzenauer said.
The gift shop is closed, but customers are still allowed to look through the glass at items they'd like to purchase. All saws are sanitized before getting used again, the checkout area is sanitized after each transaction and staff members aren't helping customers load trees onto their cars, said Enzenauer. Masks and social distancing are also required at the farm, he said.
Trees are still getting run through the shaker and bailed by staff, said Enzenauer, but trees are then put on a rack where they are picked up by customers.
Increase in business
Scott Enzenauer said on the day after Thanksgiving, which is one of the farm's busiest days of the year, that he had noticed an uptick in traffic compared to the average year.
"What I'm hearing is that people just want to get out of the house and do something outside," he said. "They want to get out and do something with the family."
Enzenauer Evergreens has gotten some new customers this year, along with "the ones that have been coming out forever," said Scott Enzenauer. He said watching the children of longtime customers grow over the years makes the industry a special one to be a part of.
"They come out when their children are younger, and now those kids have kids that are starting to come out," he said. "You kind of get to know the families."
The Christmas tree industry in Minnesota seems to be shifting away from the pre-cut lots, he said, to "the family coming out to do something for a day."
One of the groups at Enzenauer Evergreens on Nov. 27 was the Wissbroecker family from Owatonna, Minn.
Bethany Wissbroecker with daughter Willa and a saw in tow, said it's been a tradition for her and her husband, Tony, to cut down their Christmas tree on the day after Thanksgiving. She said they come to Enzenauer Evergreen for the "family-owned atmosphere" as well as the variety of trees to pick from.
Wissbroecker said she was impressed with the safety precautions at the farm and that she wasn't at all concerned about their safety.
"We're outside, and everybody keeps to themselves in their own zone, trying to find your family tree," she said. "We didn't run into anybody while we were out here."
As small business owners, Wissbroecker said they understand the importance of supporting local businesses themselves.
"Especially long-run businesses like this one, to keep them in business and going strong," she said.
Jerald and Valerie Hettenbach of Rochester, Minn., were also on the hunt for their 2020 Christmas tree on Nov. 27. In the carrier backpack worn by Valerie was their daughter Hattie, and following closely behind his dad was their son, Bretten.
"If we all come to agreement that it's the perfect tree, then it's the one for us," Jerald Hettenbach said.
The family bounced from tree to tree, imagining out loud how each would look against their living room wall. One tree was deemed to be "too fat," while another one Jerald liked was said to be "too tall" for Valerie's taste.
"Oooooo, what about that one," said Valerie, pointing to the eventual winner.
After getting approval from the entire Hettenbach family, it became official.
"OK, Bretten, you're sawing this year," said Jerald Hettenbach to his 4-year-old son.
Without hesitation, Bretten grabbed the saw and ducked underneath the tree to start cutting.
"It's too hard," he told his dad after a few tries, before Jerald stepped in and showed his son how to cut the tree properly.
Jerald and Valerie have been cutting their Christmas tree down on the day after Thanksgiving at Enzenauer Evergreens for six years, which is two years longer than they've had kids.
"It's the same people out here every year," said Jerald Hettenbach. "So it's really fun to be a part of."
They've always preferred real trees over the fake ones and grew up cutting down trees with their families.
"It's great to support our local farmers, and the environment," said Valerie Hettenbach.
Gabbi Sparby, marketing specialist for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, said there are 62 Christmas tree growers in Minnesota. She said that number has been pretty consistent over the last decade.
Sparby said that the department has heard from Christmas tree growers already that it's been a busier than normal year at their farms, due to people tired of being inside all year.
Christmas tree farms are considered to be an essential business, Sparby said, as well as being safe for families to visit during the pandemic.
"It's a great activity for friends and family to get together, be outside and do something fun," she said.
She said the Ag Department recommends people cut down their own tree rather than buy one already cut or a fake one because it's a great experience.
"It's also great for the Minnesota economy and our local tree producers, because they are an important part of our ag economy," she said.
The Minnesota Grown Program , which is a partnership between the MDA and Minnesota producers of specialty crops and livestock, provides a list of reasons why buying a Minnesota grown tree supports not only the state's economy but the environment as well.
The website Pick Your Own Christmas Tree has some resources for Christmas tree farms in other states.