Uprooted: The tree farm may have moved, but the people, products have stayed the same

posted Nov. 20, 2017 9:33 a.m. (CDT)
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by / Jenessa Freidhof, Regional Editor | jenessa.freidhof@ecpc.com

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    Peter Hartung uses a 1933 John Deere GP to do tasks around the farm and add an element of the old days to the experience.
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    The 1933 John Deere GP has become something people watch for when they visit the farm.
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    The wreaths are usually made throughout November and then placed in cold storage until they are sold so they stay green and fresh.
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    The farm's gift shop sells candles and other Christmas decorations.
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    Peter Hartung welcomes family and friends to his farm each year to make balsam garland and Fraser fir wreaths. The wreaths are made in a 100-year-old barn that is on the farm.

Peter Hartung bought Hilliker Tree Farm near Tomah in 1990 as a place to raise his family. Twenty-seven years later and with many changes along the way, his passion for Christmas tree farming remains strong.

Leigh Hilliker, who worked for the Department of Natural Resources, started the farm in 1943 with the planting of his first tree. 

“He was issuing cutting permits for people to go up north and cut a live (Christmas) tree,” Hartung said. “That is when he came up with an idea that if he plantation-grew (the trees) closer to home instead of way up north, those people who wanted a real tree could buy from him.”

Hilliker planted 1,000 white spruce trees by hand the first year on land that wasn’t ideal for other agricultural crops like corn and soybeans.

“I still have the original John Deere 580 walking plow that was used to cut furrows into the side hill and they planted the trees in those furrows by hand,” Hartung said. “They would walk along the side of the hill, roll over the sod and then plant the trees in the bare dirt left by the plow.”

Hilliker found that after the trees had matured to the desired size, people would come and buy from him, just as he hoped.

“His hopes were to plant them for pennies and sell them for dollars and that is what he did,” Hartung said.

In 1954, Hilliker bought a Forester Tree Planter, which he used to plant his trees from that point on and which Hartung continues to use today. The planter is pulled behind a tractor with a person sitting on the planter. The coulter cuts into the soil and the person on the planter places the seedling into that cut. The planter then closes the furrow behind it. Hartung said he usually plants 2,000 to 3,000 trees each year and has used the planter every year since he bought the farm in 1990.

“We plant about 1,000 trees to the acre. This spring, we planted 1,500 trees. One week later, I took a ride in an ambulance and had a stent put into my heart, so that has slowed me down a little bit,” Hartung said. “I was one of those farmers that said, ‘No, it can’t be happening to me’ and I ignored it for three days. I finally drove myself to the hospital where I was put in an ambulance and taken to La Crosse to have some heart surgery. I did not actually have a heart attack, but I had a good wake-up call and warning.”

Hartung said despite his recent health scare, tree farming makes him feel good and he can’t imagine his life without it.

“This has been a part of my life for 27 years. I can’t stop,” Hartung said, but noted that the recent health events has him thinking about how many trees he will continue to plant in the future.

“I don’t know what the future will bring, but I do enjoy this business,” Hartung said.

Another challenge the farm has faced in recent years was being bought out by a frac sand mine, which forced him to relocate to a different and smaller location down the road.

“We were the largest choose-and-cut tree farm in the area with 140 acres. Unfortunately, the sand mine came to town and we didn’t really have a lot of choice. If we would not have sold, the future would have been never selling because who is going to buy a farm in the middle of a sand mine?” Hartung said. “That is the reality of it. There were a lot of hurt feelings and a lot of disappointment that I would sell, but when you step back and look at the writing on the wall and everybody else is sold around you, it is what it is.”

After selling the original location, Hartung bought 10 acres one mile closer to town and began planting trees again. Although he is now three years into his new farm location, his trees are still six to seven years away from maturing into room-sized Christmas trees. To keep his business going in the meantime, Hartung has had to get creative.

“I am actually buying trees from other local growers, tagging them, shearing them, cutting and harvesting them and bringing them to my location to retail them,” Hartung said.

He is still trying to make selecting a Christmas tree a full family experience by offering wagon rides, a campfire, free hot chocolate and having a snack shed and gift shop for people to check out during their visit.

“My business has changed a little bit, or a lot of bit. The one thing that is certain in life is change and we are changing every day. I am putting forth my best effort to still make it a good time and a family tradition to come out and get a tree,” Hartung said. “We are just trying to provide a reasonably priced tree and promote family. Take those two hours with your kids to come out and pick out a tree. It is more of an experience that comes with a tree.”

In addition to pre-cut balsam fir, Fraser fir, Scotch pine and white pine Christmas trees, the gift shop sells fresh Fraser fir wreaths and balsam fir garland along with candles, glass ornaments and other Christmas decorations.

Hartung said over the years he has watched three generations grow up coming to his farm to pick the perfect Christmas tree, and that is one thing that keeps him going year after year.

“I have approximately 1,100 families that come out and get a pre-cut tree from me and I look forward to seeing them every year,” Hartung said. “I shake so many hands and get so many hugs. I love the excitement of the season — it is such a happy time.”

Hartung said he is glad he was able to raise his children on the farm, as the experience helped them become who they are today.

“I had a 6-year-old running the snack shed, pouring hot chocolate for people and being able to smile and say, ‘How can I help you,’ ” Hartung said, who went on to say he taught his children early on that the goal was to make the customer happy and to give them a positive experience every time they came out to the farm.

“I remember one year the pre-cut trees maybe were a little closer to the campfire than I realized and a customer called me at home to say his tree smelled like a campfire. My son answered the phone. He was probably 13 or 14, and instead of handing me the phone, he handled the concern of the customer, telling them to come back tomorrow and we would give them a different one. I didn’t train him or tell him what to say, he just knew that our job and our goal is that everybody is happy with what they got.”

Hartung said although his children are grown, they still come back on the weekends to help.

“My tag phrase is ‘Hilliker Tree Farm, a family tradition since 1943,’ and it still is and it will always be,” Hartung said. 

“I look at the amount of work that I am doing these days and my workload has doubled and tree prices have stayed the same, but I still want to do this and I can’t imagine my life without it,” Hartung said.

Hilliker Tree Farm is open Nov. 18 through Dec. 24, with family activities on the weekends, including a visit from Santa the first weekend in December. More information can be found at http://www.hillikertreefarm.com or on their Facebook page.

If you go

What: Hilliker Tree Farm and Christmas Cottage.

Where: 21495 Flatiron Ave., Tomah.

Hours: Weekends, 9 a.m. to dusk; weekdays, noon to dusk; Thanksgiving Day and Friday, Nov. 25, 9 a.m. to dusk.

Information: Peter Hartung, thetreeguy@hillikertreefarm.com or 608-372-0777.

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