Hot chocolate and wagon rides, hot dogs and sing-a-longs, walks down an enchanted forest trail, and a giant straw mountain to climb. Those are just a few of the amusements families enjoy on their annual December trek to St. Croix Valley Trees to cut a fresh Christmas tree. Like topping the tree with that favorite angel or serving ham the way Grandma made it, visiting the tree farm in Somerset, Wisconsin, is a holiday tradition for many area residents.
And that, says Sherrill Schottler, who owns St. Croix Valley Trees with her husband, Paul, is what makes her own family’s holiday bright. “We’ve got quite a few families who tell us, ‘This is our 18th year or 20th year coming out here because you’re an important part of our holiday.’ That’s what we enjoy most about what we do.”
Many customers drive an hour, sometimes three, to get to the tree farm and, over the years, the Schottlers have gotten to know a fair number of them. Regulars who can’t come often send emails and Christmas cards just to stay in touch. That’s a testament to the meaning of traditions, Sherrill says: “Keeping things going is the stuff of a good life, and anyone who can hang on to their family’s traditions is very fortunate.”
For Paul and Sherrill, that means putting up their own fresh-cut tree in early November before the holiday rush begins. And the same goes for their three adult children’s families—seven grandchildren in all—who live within five miles of the farm and help with whatever needs doing throughout the year.
And there’s a lot to do. Depending on the type of tree, it takes 10 to 14 years to attain the height and shape needed to be salable—and that’s not counting the time required to care for and prepare the soil before seedlings are planted.
A Gift of Land
Since buying their farm in 1969, the Schottler family has been committed to working the land in the most eco-friendly way possible. They test their soil routinely, adding only what’s needed, and don’t overdo it with fertilizer—which can end up in nearby lakes and cause harmful algae blooms. Always careful not to disturb the slope of the land and cause erosion, they also plant soybeans and other cover crops to keep the soil healthy and nutrient-rich.
In 2008, aware that their 160-acre property was becoming more desirable to developers, the family opted to protect the land for the future by signing a conservation easement with Wisconsin’s Star Prairie Land Preservation Trust. Under the terms of the agreement, Paul and Sherrill’s son, Shawn Paul, will own the property eventually and have the right to continue operating the tree farm, but the land can never be subdivided or developed. “Growing up here, all of our children have a land ethic, and they decided that rather than sell the land, they would like to see it protected,” says Sherrill. “Not that there’s anything wrong with development, but we feel it’s so important for the soul to have some areas that are still in their natural state.”
Paul and Sherrill first tried to grow ginseng on their land but realized it was just too much work for too little profit. They planted their first Christmas trees in 1975. It was a gamble—even without three young children at home—Sherrill recalls, “because you plant trees and you hope that your customers will want what you’ve grown in 10 or 12 years.” It helped that the couple had full-time jobs to rely on as they slowly built their business. With Paul teaching eighth-grade science in Stillwater and Sherrill teaching business to senior-high students in Somerset, they went ahead with the plan.
In 1987, they put out their first “Christmas Trees For Sale—One Day Only” sign because “that’s all the trees we had,” Sherrill laughs. From there, the business grew slowly, open two days, a couple of weekends, and so on until today, when St. Croix Valley Trees is open from the Friday after Thanksgiving until December 21.
Weekends can be crowded because family activities are in full swing, so if you’d prefer a more relaxed tree-cutting experience, Sherrill advises visiting the farm during the week. Handsaws are provided, and they have precut trees as well as wreaths, garlands, and tree stands. Pets are part of the family, so they’re always welcome as long as they’re leashed. More details about the 2014 season, including dates when Santa will be in attendance, are available at stcroixvalleytrees.com.
Christmas Tree Primer
St. Croix Valley Trees grows several types of evergreens. The Schottlers are happy to steer you to the kind you prefer.
Very fragrant with branches suited for lighter decorations; short, dark-green needles
Cross between a Balsam and Fraser; Balsam fragrance, Fraser look.
Mildly fragrant with strong branches for heavier decorations; dark-green needles
Unique fragrance with strong branches; long, deep-green needles
Two types: Black Hills spruce with light to dark-green needles and Colorado spruce, which has a bluish hue. Fragrance varies; short needles and strong branches
Mildly fragrant with branches suited for lighter ornaments; soft, light-green needles
By Meleah Maynard
Photos by Stephen Geffre