MOUNT VERNON — What started as a simple idea of a side business to make a little money has turned into a labor-intensive project that won’t see positive results for another five years.
Wade Schoenfelder has decided to start a cut-your-own Christmas tree farm, called Jolly Acres. And five years is a pretty standard investment of time.
“I kind of started looking at ideas for (things) like, miniature farms, niche crops and things like that. And the Christmas tree idea popped into my head,” said Schoenfelder, a customer business advisor for Bayer Crop Science. “Because if someday I decide that I'm not going to follow through with it, I'll just have a tree belt, right? Not that big of a deal.
“So, it just seemed like a neat idea which, in my head, when I started, this whole deal didn't seem like it was going to be that much work. And obviously, it turns into a lot of work just like anything else.”
Jacey Jira, who lives with Schoenfelder, her boyfriend, was immediately on board with the idea.
“I was all about it. And he's definitely like, 'Research, research, research. Should I do this? Where should we get them from? How many should we get? What kinds?' Because there's dozens of types of Christmas trees,” Jira said. “I actually bought him a Christmas tree book, how to grow Christmas trees, two years ago for Christmas. I said, well, that'll get you started.”
In trying to find other cut-your-own tree farms in South Dakota, Schoenfelder was only able to locate Riverview Christmas Tree Farm in Canton. That gave him the belief there is a market for a tree farm.
In preparation for this year’s Christmas, Jira wanted to go to Canton to cut down a tree for their own home.
“We had planned on going and cutting our tree at Riverview just to see the process and the end game and how those guys handle everything and what their layouts look like,” said Jira, a second-grade teacher at Longfellow Elementary. “But before we could get there, they sold out. It was early, because I was like, ‘(Wade) are we gonna go cut one down?’ And he was like, ‘You're gonna be mad at me, but they're sold out.’”
The demand the couple experienced is being felt nationwide, as most places have sold out within a matter of the first couple of weeks of opening. Black Friday is the unofficial first day for tree farms to begin selling Christmas trees with smaller farms only open on the weekends.
While Jira had gifted Schoenfelder the book on Christmas trees, it collected dust for a while.
Eventually pulling the trigger on the idea in the fall of 2019, Schoenfelder not only began reading that book but doing a lot more in-depth research including joining several Facebook groups dedicated to Christmas tree farming.
Schoenfelder recognized the convenience of being located on 247th Street, a paved road in rural Davison County. The field is located approximately 11 miles west of the South Dakota Highway 37 intersection, or 7 miles west of the Poet ethanol plant north of Mitchell.
The record-setting moisture during 2019 made it easy to hold off on planting another year.
“We thought about doing it the spring before. But as wet as it was, I mean, everything was so wet and soggy and Christmas trees don't generally like excessive moisture. So we didn't pull the trigger on it until the spring,” Schoenfelder said. “Which I think is a good thing. I think we would have lost a lot of them if we would have tried that way.”
Schoenfelder researched a variety of types of trees to grow and the type of care they would need. Eventually finding the right nursery out of Wisconsin, he purchased four types of seedlings to start his tree farm.
On April 30, arriving in a moisture-sealed plastic bundle, Jira said she didn’t even realize what it was at first.
“It comes in a pack and they're all squished together. It looks like a bunch of branches, and you got to peel them all out,” she said. “Then you have to plant them within the next day or two. So, we had a bunch of family and friends come, and more than we even really needed. We had a good process going by the end.”
Schoenfelder purchased 400 seedlings to plant and with the help of his parents, brother, aunt and uncle, and Jira they were able to get done in a day and a half.
“I think our neighbors were confused, too. OK, they're putting a tree out there,” Jira said. “What are they planting? Because we had a bunch of tilled rows first that sat there for a good month, probably before we planted. Now, most people in the area, people ask about it all the time. We're not anywhere without someone asking about it, which is, it's kind of fun. I mean, people are excited about it. So hopefully we can carry that excitement for five years."
While Schoenfelder had the field tilled and ready to be planted, he hadn’t set up an irrigation system immediately. The first time they watered, it was done by hand with Jira in the back of the truck pouring water on each individual tree with Schoenfelder starting and stopping every 6 feet.
“That didn't go very well. It's just too time-consuming with that many trees,” Schoenfelder said. “So, I got a 500-gallon tank on wheels. ... I can hook up my main feed line on the higher spot in the pasture. I can park on that and just gravity feeds out of the tank. That's been working pretty slick after a couple of trial and errors.”
A five-year waiting game
As their first year of planting is done, Jira and Schoenfelder will have to wait and see how all their trees will turn out in roughly five years.
“When I'm getting them as seedlings, they're 12 to 16 inches tall. And the average rule of thumb is a foot per year. So, if you want a seven-foot tree, it's gonna take six years when you put it in the ground,” Jira said. “It was exciting because it was planting in new and now it's like, 'OK, water, water, water, water, water, mow leaves, spray weeds and then water, water and water.'
“Obviously, in five or six years or the fall of that coming year will be exciting because it'll be finally all of our years of work has paid off. So, we'll see where we are on then. But it's and yeah, it's just a lot of sit and wait now and plant and grow.”
Schoenfelder said they’ve probably lost about 20% of their trees they initially planted and are now looking to see how the trees will handle their first winter.
Having planted 400 trees last spring, Schoenfelder said they’re looking at 600 more this year to allow for the same number of trees lost year and make up the difference.
Right now, the 400 trees take up about an acre on Schoenfelder’s 42-acre field allowing for more room to grow.
Running a smaller tree farm operation, Schoenfelder hopes he’ll be able to provide more personalized attention than a larger tree farm would.
“Those big farms don't have the ability to irrigate that many trees so if I'm making sure that I keep plenty of fertility to them and water, they're going to grow faster than a lot of other Christmas tree farms,” he said. “So hopefully they'll be up and looking good by then.”
As Schoenfelder continues to research and learn more about running a Christmas tree farm, he’s left most of the marketing up to Jira and her social media.
Since starting an Instagram account with the username “jollyacrestreefarm” it already has nearly 250 followers.
“She's in charge of that,” Schoenfelder said. “I might snap a few pictures for it but I don't mess around with it.”
“I didn't even try that hard. And it's just taken off,” Jira said. “Like something that's interesting for people to watch, too.”
Jira especially enjoys being able to show her students what goes into growing a Christmas tree.
“They were trying to wrap their heads around it. They're like, when can I come out? ‘I'll come help you plant.’ They're like, ‘That's like half the size of me.’” she said.
Despite numerous requests from family and friends, Jira and Schoenfelder have yet to let anyone pick out their own trees this early yet. Citing how much can change in the next five years including the tree not even making it.
Schoenfelder said it takes a couple of years before they even begin to shear and shape the trees.
With five years’ worth of planning to go, Jira and Schoenfelder are hoping by the time they are finally able to start selling trees they’ll be able to offer a larger experience.
“Just some of the ideas that we've been kicking around on to make it an experience, you know, a nativity scene and photo booth, you can do hot chocolate and food. And you can do I mean, there's so many different like craft items do that you could sell,” Schoenfelder said. “I'm definitely gonna have to have some sort of a building out there that's heated does sell things and collect money.”
Jira and Schoenfelder are also looking into adding apple trees, which would require less attention as they wouldn’t have to be replaced every year.