Local Christmas tree farms welcome seasonal customers

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Region - posted Wed., Nov. 30, 2011
Ron Olsen runs a tree through the baling machine at his family's tree farm on Ekonk Hill Road in Voluntown. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.
Ron Olsen runs a tree through the baling machine at his family's tree farm on Ekonk Hill Road in Voluntown. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.

Far from the volatile crowds at the mall, another kind of business was gearing up for Black Friday, the post-Thanksgiving shopping frenzy. Only shoppers here wouldn’t find glaring lights, shoving crowds and long lines of beeping cash registers. Instead, they found fresh, pine-scented country air, a walk through rows of trees, and maybe a complimentary cup of hot chocolate at the end.

Local Christmas tree farms opened for business on Friday, Nov. 25, welcoming families who were searching for the perfect tree. While some farms offer pre-cut trees, most simply arm customers with a cross-cut saw and let them roam the grounds to find the Christmas tree that’s right for them.

“It was surprisingly busy yesterday,” said Ron Olsen of Olsen’s Tree farm in Voluntown, on the first Saturday of his season. He said he expected his busiest weekend to be the weekend two weeks prior to Christmas.

Since Christmas falls on a Sunday this year, Olsen said he’s still on the fence about whether to open during that last weekend. It depends to some extent on how many trees are sold prior to that weekend. “‘Come early,’ I tell them,” he said of his customers.

The Griswold/Voluntown/Preston area is rich in small tree farms, in part because of the now-defunct Connecticut State Forest Nursery on Sheldon Road in Voluntown. The nursery once supplied inexpensive seedlings in quantity to tree farmers throughout the area and actively promoted the establishment of small tree farms.

“Most everybody from the state of Connecticut got their seedlings from Pachaug state nursery,” said Richard Geer, president of Geer Tree Farm in Griswold. “The program the state had was really nice.”

When the state forest nursery closed in 2004, growers were forced to look further afield for seedlings - as far away as Maine or Pennsylvania, Geer said. “Most of ours come from West Virginia,” he said.

Geer said that his family planted its first Christmas trees in 1978 and began harvesting them about 1986. With 100 acres of trees and annual retail sales of between 3,000 and 4,000 Christmas trees a year, the Geer family operation is a large one, selling fresh-cut trees at its roadside site on Route 138, along with cut-your-own trees.

The Olsens also started their retail business in the 1970s. Ron Olsen said that his father, John, planted his first trees in the 1960s and employed the whole family in maintaining the tree farm. “I worked here from childhood. My father would pay me 25 cents an hour, and my sister would help me plant,” he said.

Phil Yurechko said that his family’s tree farm on Bitgood Road in Griswold dates back even farther, to the early 1950s. It, too, is a family affair, with a gift shop stocked by family members. “Dad [Phil, Sr.] makes all the wreaths, my wife [Lucy] makes the kissing balls,” he said. The shop also sells handmade ornaments designed by Yurechko’s sister, Carol.

Many farms offer perks to enhance the down-home, cut-your-own-tree experience. Olsen’s offers hot chocolate and an animated, singing deer-head “trophy” to charm children. Yurechko’s serves hot cider for its weekend customers, even hosting groups for a “tailgate party.” Geer’s offers wagon rides and pizza for visitors.

“A lot of people are switching back from artificial trees,” said Geer. “We try to make it an experience where hopefully they’ll have a good time.”

Local tree farms include:

Griswold: Geer Tree Farm, 852 Voluntown Road; Pine Road Tree Farm, 58 Pine Road; Yurechko’s Tree Farm, 88 Bitgood Road.

Preston: Maple Lane Farms, 57 Northwest Corner Road; Oakwood Farm, 16 Pendleton Hill Road.

Voluntown: Hartikka’s Tree Farm, Shetucket Turnpike; Olsen’s Tree Farm, 319 Ekonk Hill Road.

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