Students join in ceremonial cutting of first Christmas tree
Assemble 64 lively fourth graders, schedule a visit by Alice in Dairyland, have a violin player on hand to provide music for some sing-a-longs, and mix in an informative tree farm owner host.
That was the recipe for Wisconsin's ceremonial cutting of the year's first Christmas tree on the morning of Nov. 16 at Rolling Hills Tree Farm south of here in Sheboygan County.
Tree farm owner and quipster Jon Bigler promised the students from Random Lake Elementary School "a tree-mendous time" during the visit which included a ride on two hay wagons to the site where Alice in Dairyland Rochelle Ripp cut an eight-foot Douglas fir.
Recalling his own school days in mathematical class, he said one answer was "Gee, I'm a tree."
At various times during the visiting period, violinist Kenneth Wilhite of Gibbsville prompted the sing-a-longs of Christmas tunes. He works at the Kettle Lakes Cooperative, which provides Bigler with soil fertilization and cropping services.
During the visit, the students learned that Bigler would give the Douglar fir chosen for this year's ceremonial cutting to their school for decorating. He said the tree would have been priced at $26.
At the conclusion of the event, Bigler's relatives treated the students to hot chocolate, brownies and Christmas cookies.
The cutting of a Christmas tree is an annual event sponsored by the Wisconsin Christmas Tree Producers Association in conjunction with the Alice in Dairyland program. Every year, the association selects a different host from among its more than 400 licensed members.
The right climate
Bigler told the visitors his tree farm is one of very few places in Wisconsin at which growing Douglas firs can be done successfully. That's because the tree species requires a cool climate - one provided by the nearby Lake Michigan - to prevent the freezing of buds during the spring.
In addition, Bigler planted his Douglas firs on a north slope in order to slow the early season growth of the trees and make them less vulnerable to spring freezes.
He noted that the Lake Superior region is another suitable place for growing Douglas firs in Wisconsin.
The Douglas fir chosen for this year's cutting grew from a branch that was left by a cut-your-own customer seven or eight years ago, Bigler pointed out. In turn, he noted that a shoot or branch growing from the same stump should provide another very nice tree in about five years.
With Ripp wielding the hand saw, the chosen Douglas fir came down after a few minutes of effort.
It was then taken back to the tree baler near the sales shed and run through a shaker to remove any loose needles before students took turns in turning the handle which pulls the strap that pulls the tree through the device which wraps thin plastic mesh around the tree.
Bigler told the visiting students and their teachers that it is important to keep the tree fresh for a long time with a few easy steps.
For a cut-your-own tree, get the base of the trunk into water in a tree stand (one gallon of water is recommended) within eight hours of cutting, he advised.
For a tree purchased off a lot, take a fresh cut of up to one inch directly across the trunk's base in order to reopen the pores for water intake, Bigler explained. What not to do, he emphasized, is to chop away only the outside or bark of the bottom of the trunk because that is the area which absorbs most of the water.
Bigler told the visitors that the 72 acres which he purchased in December 1995 were plagued with soil erosion and flooding at the time. After establishing grasses in 1996 to stabilize the soil and control the flooding, he began planting trees in 1997.
In recent years, Bigler has been selling about 300 Christmas trees annually in a sales period running from the Friday after Thanksgiving Day until Christmas Eve.
With a preference for eight-foot heights, Bigler's traditional tree lineup includes Balsam, Douglas, Fraser and Canaan firs, along with Scotch pine.
Recent Christmas tree additions to the farm, some of which are ready for cutting this year, are the Korean, Concolor and Grand firs and Meyer spruce.
Bigler has been planting 800 trees in recent years, including hardwoods and some apple and peach trees.
Tree prices at Rolling Hills start at $12 for a table top tree of up to three-and-one-half feet. Prices for eight-foot trees range from $22 for a Scotch pine to $42 for a Fraser fir.
Bigler noted a customer change in preference for varieties of Christmas trees.
Scotch pine have fallen out of favor, prompting him to turn many of them into wood chips, which in turn are used as growing base for dozens of younger trees in 25-gallon pots. The remaining white spruce are being sold for pulpwood.
For the Christmas season, ready-made or make-your-own wreaths, starting at $14 and $10, respectively, are also available to customers at Rolling Hills Tree Farm.
Customers are also treated to a free hay wagon ride and hot cocoa. Children receive a free Christmas coloring book.
Other items available at Rolling Hills are hand-crafted sleighs and wooden trays, hand-blown glass ornaments from the Czech Republic, Wisconsin theme ornaments, and wool snowmen.
In a corner of the sales shed, three sheep await treats of corn kernels that can be purchased for 25 cents per cup.
In her role of promoting all segments of Wisconsin's agriculture, Ripp reminded the students and their teachers to patronize natural Christmas tree businesses such as Bigler's.
The newspaper column that she distributed leading up to the first tree cutting noted that Wisconsin's portion of the Christmas tree business is worth about $250 million per year for the 1,100 growers who cut and sell about 950,000 trees per year.
Trees for Troops
Every year Bigler donates 10 trees (Fraser fir this year) to the "Trees for Troops" project, which delivers them to families on military bases. The trees donated by grower association members are assembled at Lambeau Field in Green Bay before being shipped out.
While here, Ripp wrote a short greeting message on a pad tag that will accompany this year's shipment.
On the tree farm here, where the rolling hills provide a commanding view of the surrounding countryside, trees are planted on 16 acres. Winter wheat and flowering shrubs are also grown, many of the acres are enrolled long-term in the federal Conservation Reserve Progam, and the combination of food, cover and habitat has attracted wild turkeys and other wildlife species, Bigler indicates.
Bigler's management goes to the extent of having the needles of trees tested to determine if they are being properly fertilized.
He also limits the use of pesticides, pointing out that none have been applied for eight years for the sake of the wild turkeys who eat worms that infest the trees.
Rolling Hills Tree Farm is at W5092 Highway F, just west of Highway 57. The phone number is 920-528-8271.