Christmas tree farms open for business

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For Kaley Ukleja, the only downside of working on a Christmas tree farm is the music.

"I love the work, but the Christmas music is my least favorite part," said Kaley, who, along with family members working Friday at Ukleja's Christmas Tree Farm in Quaker Hill, lamented how Christmas carols and store decorations seem to crop up earlier every year.

But Kaley, the 15-year-old granddaughter of owners Vinnie and Susan Ukleja, plans on taking over the sloping 6-acre farm, which has been open for the season since September and in operation almost three decades.

"They've spent a lot of time on it," she said. "I want to keep it in the family name."

Nick Carson, an 18-year-old neighbor of the Uklejas, said Friday his family picks up a pre-cut tree from the farm every year without fail.

"I feel like I'm a part of the farm," he said near rows of pre-cut trees before the farm's covered bridge and winding pathways to firs, spruces and white pines.

This week, more than 500 Christmas tree growers statewide opened for business. The state Department of Agriculture says the Christmas tree industry is booming at almost $10 million in annual economic activity, helped along by the growing popularity of choose-and-cut farms.

"The tradition has really caught on in the last 10 to 15 years," state Department of Agriculture spokesman Steve Jensen said in an interview. "The selling season also gets earlier and earlier. It used to be unheard of to open before Thanksgiving, but the demand is just there, which is great for local farmers."

Vinnie Ukleja said most of his business is pre-cut trees, but his family still encourages the experience of picking and cutting down your own.

Combined with annual family days with Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus, hot chocolate and cookies, Ukleja said the farm "tries to make people feel at home so they don't have to rush around."

A retired shuttle bus driver, Vinnie Ukleja says the annual cycle begins in February when he orders between 1,000 and 1,200 seedlings and expects a "guaranteed loss of 10 percent" every year. Then it's a matter of oil spraying, trimming and fertilizing.

"It's a full-time job," he said with a smile Friday.

4,000 acres of trees

For some tree farmers, this Christmas season began in the spring of 2004.

"From seed, for an average-selling 7- to 8-foot-tall tree, it takes about 13 years to grow," said David Hartikka of Hartikka Tree Farms in Voluntown. "It's a year-round maintenance situation."

Hartikka says planting, weed control, fertilization and trimming make up the bulk of the off-season for the 160-acre farm, which has been in operation since 1955.

"There's no perfect science to it," he said. "You've got to keep your inventory up. But the patronage is what keeps us here. I like people coming down because they're going to remember something besides just buying a tree."

Hartikka, whose farm offers wood-fired pizza, Italian doughnuts and horse wagon rides, said his grandfather bought the land and raised chickens "before the corporate world took over."

Almost 4,000 acres of Connecticut farmland are planted with Christmas trees, the 13th largest acreage in the country, according to the state Department of Agriculture.

From Colchester to Griswold, at least 16 farms in New London County are members of the Connecticut Christmas Tree Growers Association.

Kathy Kogut, executive director of the association, called tree shopping a "genuine family experience which can be continued generation to generation" in a news release this week.

"Much like other crops provide food for the body, the scent of a farm-grown Christmas tree provides food for the soul," she said.

b.kail@theday.com

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