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Oh Christmas tree, where art thou?

December 7, 2008
By MICHAEL GASSETT — Journal Sports Writer

NEW ULM - Starting a Christmas tree farm is slow, labor intensive process.

The trees take several years before they are big enough for sale and production can be wiped out by several factors.

But after years of watching the trees grow it can be very rewarding to see the smile on a families face when they find the perfect Christmas tree.

Article Photos

Brett, Kelly and Braeden Strenge of Lake Crystal look for the right tree at the Guggisberg Tree Farm in rural New Ulm.

"I think it's really neat. We enjoy seeing the families come out and having fun," said Tony Guggisberg, who runs Guggisberg Christmas Tree Farm with his wife Maria and family. "I think for the kids, it's memories that last a lifetime. Sometimes it's really cold, other times we have had people come out in ice storms and you don't forget things like that. That's what makes it so special."

Guggisberg has always had a love for the outdoors and especially for trees. He went to school to become a landscape artist, which led to him opening his first business River Creek Nursery in New Ulm.

He started planting Christmas trees on his farm in 1994. His dad thought he was crazy to start a tree farm because he was taking up farmland to plant the trees. Also the fact that you wait 10 to 12 years before you get a first return on your planting.

"The biggest thing is you don't get a disease after 10 years of growing and wipe out your trees," Guggisberg said. "Either that or you plant varieties hoping that people will like them and over time peoples tastes change. Maybe you plant an over abundance of the Balsam fir and people want Scotch pine. Now you have trees nobody wants."

But he knew what he was getting into when he started and it has been well worth the wait.

"I knew it would take a long time because they were just seedlings," he said. "Keeping them alive was the main thing. Controlling the weeds is important and keeping them watered. Soil type is important some types prefer sandy soil."

But still that first harvest was a little bittersweet.

"I felt kind of bad cutting down that first crop of trees because they were so nice," Guggisberg said. "But I planted them for a reason and if I didn't cut some of them down they would just grow into each other and die out because they are planted six-feet apart."

He first started selling this Christmas trees at River Creek Nursery but as the years went by, demand grew.

In 2006 he opened up shop on his farm where people can go and search for the perfect tree. He provides the saw and each customer provides their imagination.

Guggisberg has made it a family affair. He has six children ranging in ages from 5 to 13 years old and they all do their part by helping in the store with taking money or serving cookies and cider. His wife Marie and his dad also help out with the customers on the busy weekends while Guggisberg is out helping families deciding on trees.

On the weekends in the gift shop, the Guggisbergs provide hot apple cider to warm up with and cookies to enjoy. Children may also select a candy cane from the tree inside. On Sunday's there is also a television going in the corner with the Vikings game on so you can keep tabs on the score.

When the ideal tree is selected, it is brought up to the gift shop where Guggisberg sets it on a tree shaker to remove any loose needles and snow.

Those that don't want to cut their own trees can still go to River Creek Nursery pick one out. He brings a variety trees inwith different kinds of trees at different heights. But the people that come out to the farm are the ones that drive out to search for trees.

Guggisberg opens shop the Friday after Thanksgiving and he said this year the first weekend saw around 150 people come to the farm to find their tree.

His guest book reads like a state map. Families come from all around with customers coming as far as Minneapolis and he even had a family stop by on their way back home to Wisconsin. But most of his customers come from just down the road from St. James and Mankato. On Thursday the Strenge family came from Lake Crystal to pick out this year's tree.

One might think that the Christmas tree season is very short - from just after Thanksgiving to just before Christmas. That is only partly true.

But Guggisberg says what people don't realize is it's almost a year-long season.

"You start to plant in April then you have to keep the weeds under control," he said. "Then you have to trim them and that takes almost the whole summer. If it's a dry year you have to water them. Then you start harvesting them."

The planting season starts like any other crop as he tills up the ground where he plans to plant. He sets up his rows with a string to make them straight and he plants them all by hand with a shovel.

He plants between 800 and 1,000 trees each year and he can get about 100 trees planted in an hour.

The seedlings are only eight to 12 inches tall, so it's very important to keep weeds under control because the weeds may overtake the young seedlings.

Guggisberg says that he trims 90 percent of the trees that he plants. He starts trimming the pine trees in June and the rest of the summer he trims the spruce and fir trees. He trims them because trees look prettier. If he doesn't trim them, they may look over grown and oddly shaped.

"I do let a few of them grow just natural because I do have customers that just want the natural old-fashioned looking tree," he said. "It all depends on what people want. You try to have a selection of different types of trees and different shapes and sizes because everyone wants something different.

"You would be surprised I had some people in the other day that just picked a tree that looked like a Charlie Brown tree. As we were loading it another person said that's exactly what they wanted so I cut down some more."

The Guggisberg trees vary in size from 3-feet up to 12-feet. A 12-foot tree can take up to 12-14 years to grow into a Christmas tree depending on the type of tree.

He has 22 different types of evergreens on his farm but not all make good Christmas trees.

There are 10 varieties of trees that he sells to the public including Balsam fir, Fraser fir, Canaan fir, Douglas fir. Blue spruce, Black Hills spruce, Norway spruce, Scotch pine and White pine.

In the future people will be able to get a Korean fir and Siberian fir but those trees are still young and are still a ways away from being ready for the family room.

"It's something new and an exotic tree in the future," Guggisberg said. "It's just something to try and see how well they grow around here. Five years from now the customers may say, 'I am tired of these trees, what else is there?' I try something new nearly every year. Some live some don't. You have to just play around with them."

Right now, the Balsam fir is the most popular tree because of the short soft needles and it's a very fragrant tree.

The pine trees have longer needles. The fir and pine trees will hold their needles quite well. The spruce trees make a nice tree because they have very strong branches but they are the first to drop the needles.

But Guggisberg says there really isn't a perfect tree.

"How do you define perfect?," he said. "Even ones with holes in them have character. They all have unique shape and size to them. It's all about what the family wants and what makes them happy."



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