Christmas, nature come together
By Ken Francis
Every year since 1981 on the Friday after Thanksgiving, the Weis Christmas Tree Farm opens for business.
It’s a place where people can not only cut their own Christmas trees, but also enjoy the diversity of plant and animal life that surrounds them.
Over the years, many plant and animal species have found a home in the coniferous trees, sedge meadow, willow lowland and oak woodland that makes up the farm, which is located on Co. Rd. 6, eight miles north of Hwy. 10 in Clear Lake.
The farm is owned by Leon Weis and his wife, Marion, Leon’s brother Denis and his wife Jo.
It was their appreciation for the land and outdoor life that inspired the Weis’ to keep the land in its natural state when they began planting trees more than 25 years ago.
“In 1974 we bought the land, 120 acres, to have more space and live out in the country,” says Denis. “We had hunted on the land prior to buying it and did some hiking, and we liked the mix of nature on the property.”
The land consisted of 60 acres of oak woods, 40 acres of open land that could be farmed, and 20 acres of marsh and wetlands. It also adjoined another 60 acres that Leon owned, creating a large stretch of property.
“We were trying to do something that would enhance the wildlife aspect of the land and the nature of the area because we liked hiking and skiing,” says Denis. “So we planted some Christmas trees the very first year.”
Learning From Conservationist
As a youngster, Denis used to visit a neighboring tree farm run by a soil conservationist, Henry Wilson.
“It was a fun type of business,” says Denis, “and I liked the idea of seasonal work where I didn’t have to be there every day to do something, like raising animals.”
Leon, now 71, had farmed with his father and later worked at the the St. Cloud correctional facility and Denis, 59, was a biology and science teacher at Apollo and Tech High School in St. Cloud for the past 27 years.
Although there were other tree farms in the area, the Weis’ never considered making their farm their only means of support.
“We didn’t look at it to be really profitable, but there was a demand at the time for Christmas trees,” says Denis. “We saw that we could eventually make money at it - a little money”.
“It was more a way to justify buying the land,” says Jo, “to kind of make ends meet and still improve the land environmentally without using chemicals and fertilizers.”
In fact, until 1984, they used some of the tillable land to plant corn and rye to help produce some income from the land, while Leon pastured cattle in the oak woods.
But from the very start, they discovered that there was more to a Christmas tree farm than just planting seedlings and waiting for the trees to grow.
“Before we bought this land it was in a federal conservation program where the farmer was paid not to plant on the land,” says Denis. “So a lot of it was overgrown with weeds and there were pocket gophers everywhere.”
In sandy soil, a single pocket gopher can cover one acre and put up 100 mounds in a season and eat the roots of the pine and spruce trees.
“All of a sudden you see a tree leaning a bit,” Denis says. “You touch the tree and there’s nothing holding it up.”
Fortunately, planting corn and rye for the first few years helped smooth the land down and helped control the pocket gophers. Eventually the tillable fields were converted into patches of trees.
The first year, they planted 4,000 seedlings of spruce, Norway pine and Scotch pine, and had success with that first crop.
“We were lucky that we had good growing seasons the first two years,” says Denis. “Because we don’t irrigate our trees and the soil is really sandy.”
In the mid-eighties, they went through some drought years where a lot of seedlings died, but they didn’t consider scrapping the tree farm idea.
“It takes seven or eight years to harvest a tree if you plant a seedling,” says Denis. “But there was a big demand when the drought killed off a lot of trees. Many tree farms started about five years after us, so we could still make money selling trees.”
Over the years, the farm blossomed into a family business, with Denis’ four children and Leon’s seven helping plant trees and assisting with sales. Some of Leon’s children and grandchildren still help out when the selling season begins.
Growing 45,000 Trees
The farm currently has about 45,000 trees planted on 35 acres, and keeping the business going is still hard work.