Just six miles south of Peterson, off a winding stretch of Highway 16 and County 25 south, sits the 60-acre Becker Tree Farm. Started by family patriarch Henry Becker in 1999, the farm has become a surging industry for the family.
“In the early years, it was just planting different varieties of Christmas trees,” says Henry’s son, Tony Becker, who is the farm’s marketing manager. “It was always dad’s dream to operate his own tree farm business.” Henry, who originally hails from Caledonia, began by selling precut trees at the family residence, in Rushford, and at the family’s then-restaurant, Stumpy’s Restaurant & Bar. However, they didn’t actually begin selling the trees until 2009.
On average, it takes seven to ten years to grow the Scotch pine, white pine, Balsam fir, and blue spruce trees to harvest maturity. “It depends on the variety of tree and how the weather effects their growth,” notes Tony. “Our biggest challenge over the years has been having our trees make it to maturity. Weather, animals, and weeds have killed many trees over the years. We are lucky to have a 25-50% make it to maturity.” In the past, the farm has also grown Fraser fir and Norway pine varieties. They’re hoping to add some additional varieties in the future.
The fir varieties give the farm a bit of a head start. If the mature fir is cut high enough above the ground, leaving a row of level branches, the tree will actually grow a new tree from the existing root structure. “Because the root system is already established, we can save anywhere from a third to half of the growth time,” notes Tony.
Growing a tree isn’t a simple matter of plopping it in the ground and letting nature do the rest either. Tony estimates that between 10,000 and 20,000 trees are planted on the farm, ranging from seedling to mature trees, with an additional 2,000 planted each year. All of the trees are handplanted, as opposed to a tractor and planter, which the family used to utilize. With the number of trees per acre, space is often limited and handplanting is more efficient. In addition to planting, the family conducts year-round maintenance on the trees. From maintaining the turf and weeds around their bases, extensive mowing and brush removal, and animal, pest, and disease prevention, each tree needs annual shearing to gain that telltale Christmas tree shape.
Each tree gets hours of maintenance between planting and eventual harvest. The knowledge needed to run a successful tree farm has been gained by various methods of learning, including talking with tree farm experts. The bulk of the knowledge has come from hands-on experience, however.
The farm is managed by Henry’s six children and their spouses: Susie and Tom Foley, Jeanie and Greg Kumlien, Hank and Julie Becker, Katie Becker, Anna and Nathan Baker, and Tony Becker. “We all help with planting and upkeep,” says Tony. “During our cutting season, everyone pitches in to help customers, whether it’s cutting, netting, or baking cookies.”
Business has increased steadily in its nearly 20 years. While they still sell trees at various lots within the area, the farm’s new staple is the surge in families and individuals wanting to cut their own annual tree. “Families pick up a saw, pick out a tree, and cut it down. Then, we trim the trees, shake out dead needles, and net them for transport,” adds Tony.
In 2017, 400 trees were harvested. “It was our busiest year and we sold our most trees yet,” enthuses Tony. “Weather played a factor in our success for 2017.” The family is planning on upping the spring 2018 planting to 4,000 trees to keep pace with its sales.
By and large, the customer experience is the biggest plus for the family business. “Opening to the public for the first time and getting to see families, especially children, enjoy their experience; we have tried to make sure every family has a great experience,” adds Tony. “Over the years, we have made our farm more family friendly.” In the farm’s large barn, they have added a warming area with Christmas themes where they often provide movies and activities along with their famous fresh baked cookies, hot cocoa, and cider.
“We bring in families from all over the tri-state area,” says Tony, noting that the majority spend additional time in the Rushford Peterson Valley, taking advantage of the opportunities offered by other businesses and organizations.
While the farm is thriving, the Beckers aren’t done yet. Plans to add additional varieties of trees and services are on the horizon. Additionally, the family may tie another of its businesses, Stumpy’s Concessions, into the farm, offering customers the opportunity to order a homemade pizza, cut a tree, and then enjoy their order afterwards.
Tours for local groups and schools will also continue. “We have people come to the farm to learn about our operation and we try extremely hard to keep our operation family friendly,” notes Tony. “Our slogan says it all, Growing a Family Tradition.
For more information about Becker Tree Farm, call (888) 384-7185 or visit their Facebook page www.facebook.com/beckertreefarm.