Christmas tree farming stays all in the family

Valley Christmas Tree Farm started in 1959

PHOTO BY MIRIAM NELSON Rick Brekke and his mom, Ida, enjoy selling Christmas trees from the lot just east of Wittenberg. Rick owns the farm and lives in Cedarburg. He spends the three weekends after Thanksgiving selling Christmas trees from the farm started by his parents, Al and Ida Brekke.

Sitting in the little chalet-like building with a fire burning in the wood stove made for a cozy setting to talk with Rick Brekke about Valley Christmas Tree Farm, which he owns just east of Wittenberg. With him on Saturday was his mother, Ida, who, at 92, still helps out with the three weekends after Thanksgiving when they are open for business.

Ida and her late husband, Al, bought the land in 1959 as an investment property and started planting trees that same year. The plan was to use the money generated from the tree farm to pay for college for daughters Linda and Jane, and for Jim and Rick, who arrived later. All the kids were expected to help work the farm.

Since Al was busy with his veterinary business, the running of the tree farm was mostly Ida’s domain. She managed the planning and hiring, and she set up the wholesale contacts each year.

In 1975, she suggested they expand to include a choose-and-cut retail option.

“Al didn’t think much of the idea,” Ida recalled. “He said, ‘I’ll let you try it for a year.’”

It went so well, he never said another word about it.

In the late 1990s, they made the switch in ownership as Rick was the only one of his siblings who was interested. Working at the tree farm is a hobby for Rick, who is employed as a vice president for Zurich Insurance. He said he feels fortunate to have found a good fit for his career right out of college.

“The farm is very rewarding as a stress reliever and recreational outlet for me,” he said. “Some find golfing to be relaxing. I find outdoor work relaxing.”

Over the years, the Brekkes have hired many people to help out. In April, once the snow has melted, there are stumps to be removed and new trees to be planted. In August, the trees need to be shaped and trimmed.

Ida has kept a record of everyone who has ever worked for them. Rick observed that those who had a good work ethic were the ones who were the most successful in their own careers.

“Not everyone is cut out for this kind of work,” he said. “The wrestlers and the farm kids seemed to enjoy it the most. They’re not afraid to work up a sweat.”

In a business where it takes 10 years before having a product to sell, changes are slow but sure.

“Trimming has progressed. In the 1970s, we used a single-hand pruner. (In the) ’80s, we used two-hand hedge sheers; ’90s we used 3-foot sheering knives,” Rick said. “Today we use gas trimmers. With the gas trimmers, trimming is much easier and better quality.”

Preference in trees has changed as well. Spruce and pine were popular in the 1970s. Fraser is the most popular type of tree and makes up most of their inventory. There are also still some balsam on the property. Ida said that people still ask for balsam as it smells so good in the house.