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Tree farms battling two challenges as holiday season nears

Local Christmas tree farm owners are predicting a good supply of trees for the upcoming holidays, despite the double whammy of a severe drought and the continuing Coronavirus pandemic.

David Hartikka operates his family’s 160-acre farm on Wylie School Road in Voluntown. He echoes the sentiments of many of his colleagues, in that the lack of rain this year is having little effect on the current crop of mature trees, but has meant the loss of many seedlings.

“(The drought) has set our future inventory back. We’ll probably feel the effect some seven to eight years down the road,” he said. “It’s tough, but it is what it is.”

Hartikka expects a variety of trees to be available this season. He adds he plants seedlings in the fall and spring, so he hopes this will compensate for any losses due to the drought. His farm does have irrigation for some seedlings. “We’ve been through this before,” he said.

Nearby, at Olsen’s Christmas Tree Farm on Route 49, owner Ron Olsen says the business has been beset by drought for the past couple of years, but “this year has been horrible.” While he lost quite a few small 1-year-old trees, he’s also seen drought stress at the tops of some older trees.

“Some upper parts have shown some yellowing and discoloration. There may be other causes involved, but I suspect it’s due to the drought,” he said.

Olsen says he’s already taken out the dead younger trees, and will be going through his 10-acre farm in November to remove any dead vegetation in time for the holidays.

“This year marked the first time I mulched around some of the smaller trees I planted, and I think it worked. Hopefully, that mulch kept some of the moisture in,” he said.

In previous years, Olsen said he would drive his tractor around the farm, with a 50-gallon water tank, to keep his inventory hydrated, but says the severity of this year’s drought didn’t make it feasible. Olsen also expects a good supply of trees for Christmas. agreeing with Hartikka that any effects of the drought will be felt in later years.

Both tree farm owners say they’re still working out details on how tree-selling will go this holiday season, in the age of the coronavirus. Hartikka expects, though, it’ll be different than past years, with social-distancing and mask-wearing emphasized. “We have to protect our workers, as well as our customers,” he said.

Hartikka’s has offered visits with Santa, hot chocolate, and horse-drawn wagon rides in the past. That may have to be altered.

Olsen says he expects a busy season, since people “want to get into the great outdoors, and away from this pandemic.” He has a small sales room, and gift shop, which he expects will have to limit the number of customers at any one time “just like the governor wants.” Social distancing will be emphasized, and Olsen says families will most likely be encouraged to stay together when choosing a tree.

Santa Claus has made appearances in the past for children to sit on his lap. Olsen says that may have to be re-visited. He says customer tailgating in the tree farm’s parking lot may have to be banned.

The executive director of the state’s Christmas Tree Grower’s Association, Kathy Kogut, says certain types of trees, such as balsam firs, can withstand drought better than others. She says the state’s growers are prepared for such droughts, with the Connecticut Agricultural Experimental Station helping with soil testing. She says getting a tree this holiday season may be a somewhat different experience, with fewer opportunities to “hang around the tree farm for cider and hot chocolate. It’ll still be a rewarding experience for everyone.”

Kogut says tree farms may offer such services as special hours for the elderly and others more susceptible to COVID 19. They may also provide more pre-cut trees to reduce the number of people out in the fields.

Hartikka and Olsen say they may offer more pre-cuts, although Olsen says his farm has limited space to store such trees.

Kogut says this year’s drought also makes the yearly reminder to tree-purchasers to keep their trees well-watered while in their residences and businesses all the more important. She says when you bring your tree home, make a new cut about a quarter-inch above the current cut, especially if the tree has been sitting in a lot. Keep the tree stand filled with water, and don’t put the tree near any heating elements, which could dry it out faster.

Despite the challenges, tree farm owners are generally optimistic that the upcoming holidays will still go well. Both Hartikka and Olsen say they may open on the weekend before Thanksgiving, as customers will want to get their trees earlier.

“As long as you have trees, people will still want to come outside,” said Olsen.

Kevin Gorden lives in Norwich.

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