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    Friday, January 27, 2023

    Summer drought not drying up all the Christmas spirit

    Andrew Schreck, 3, hugs the Christmas Tree he chose as mom Abaigeal, left, dad Andrew and younger sister Amelia, 1, of Norwich, look on at Geer Tree Farm on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022. “This is my favorite day of the year,” said Abaigeal. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Visitors cary a tree through rows of seedlings at Geer Tree Farm on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Employee Cole Geer loads a tree into the baler as he gets it ready for a customer at Geer Tree Farm on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Brendan Jansky, of East Haddam, carries a tree he cut at Geer Tree Farm on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Max Garvin, of Old Lyme, inspects the branches as he looks for a Christmas tree with family members at Geer Tree Farm on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Visitors look through rows of Christmas trees at Geer Tree Farm on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    This year’s stock of Christmas trees didn’t feel the heat when a Stage 2 drought hit southeastern Connecticut during the summer.

    But the seedlings sure did.

    The young trees, generally, are shorter than 3 feet tall and aren’t quite large enough to survive extreme heat spells on their own. Just ask Vinny Ukleja of Ukleja’s Tree Farm and the 800 seedlings he planted between April 15 and July 1.

    “Due to the drought, I lost 50% of my seedlings that I planted,” he said.

    Ukleja and his wife, Susan, have owned the tree farm at their Old Colchester Road home in Quaker Hill since 1990. He explained that the loss of seedlings forced him to heavily supplement his inventory from a farm in New Hampshire. Normally, Ukleja has to buy Balsam-Frasier fir trees, a variety he does not grow anymore after deer ravaged his stock in a severe snow storm in 1996. But this year he was forced to buy 800 trees just to survive the season.

    In the last two Christmas seasons, the Uklejas sold more than 900 trees from their inventory of Douglas Fir, Canaan Fir, Colorado Blue Spruce, Concolor Fir, White Spruce and Eastern White Pine.

    Ukleja explained that between the seedlings he lost and the increased prices in goods around the country, he had to raise the minimum price of a tree from $45 to $50. The price for fertilizer went up this year as well, Ukleja said. That means his crops for the next six to 10 years ― which is how long it takes for trees to reach the “popular” 6.5-foot to 10-foot height range ― is in jeopardy.

    “I’ve been basically putting them in the ground and hope they grow this year,” he said.

    Bowman Geer, the third-generation owner of Geer Family Tree Farm is Griswold, had a different experience with the drought.

    After a similar drought hit the area back in 2020, Geer purchased an irrigation system referred to as a “water wheel.” The system consists of a 640-foot-long hose wrapped on around a wheel that can be moved around the 100-acre property. They purchased a second wheel last year and ran both of them every day during this past summer’s drought.

    Geer, whose family has been growing trees since the late 1970s, said he used the irrigation systems to help establish the 10,000 seedlings they planted this year.

    “Once a tree gets established, they’re pretty tough,” Geer said. “They can handle quite a bit.”

    “It doesn’t affect the trees that are selling right now,” Geer said of the drought.

    Geer said his trees have gone up from $65 to $75 this year due to supply-chain issues and the rising cost of diesel fuel. He and his family grow six types of trees: Fraser Fir, Canadian Fir, Concolor Fir, Douglas Fir, Blue Spruce and White Pine. He said he has not seen any discoloration or other signs that the elder trees were heavily impacted by the summer drought.

    While the irrigation systems were a viable option for Geer, they were not so for Ukleja and his 6.2-acre farm.

    “It wouldn’t pay for me to irrigate this here,” Ukleja said.

    Geer has run into an issue that Ukleja has not: a seedling shortage.

    Geer explained that local tree farmers usually get their seeds from out of state. He gets his from down south and about five years ago, there was a shortage that is now having an impact on his stock.

    Ukleja said he gets his seeds from the Midwest and didn’t have to worry about a shortage. His only gripe was with the increased cost of the product.

    “I have no problems other than the price of seedlings has jumped up 20% from last year,” Ukleja said.

    However, neither Geer’s customers nor Ukleja’s have noticed much of a difference in this year’s selection.

    Zach King was at Geer’s picking out a 6-foot Douglas Fir with his wife and children on Sunday afternoon. He said this was their fifth year buying their Christmas tree from Geer’s “outstandingly fresh trees” and that he didn’t notice much different about the color, but said the sizes may have been a bit smaller.

    “I didn’t notice as much new growth as in previous years,” King said, noticing the lack of new branches on trees.

    Kevin Beteta made the same observations at Ukleja’s.

    Beteta was picking out his Christmas tree with his wife and two children Sunday afternoon. Beteta said they moved to Groton last fall and bought their tree last year from Ukleja’s, so they decided to come back. He said they liked the price and size of the tree they took home and didn’t really notice any discoloration on the trees, just a lack of new growth.

    “Now it’s time to go back home and spruce it up,” Beteta said.

    The two farms offer holiday and seasonal activities. Geer’s had a sausage and peppers stand, a popcorn stand and a table offering hot chocolate, hot apple cider and cider doughnuts.

    At Ukleja’s, there is a gingerbread house, train playscape and Santa’s Castle for visitors to take seasonal photos with. On Dec. 10, they’ll host a “Family Day” where they offer photos with Santa and Mrs. Claus as well as snacks and coffee from noon to 3 p.m.

    k.arnold@theday.com

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