Complete Christmas experience draws families to JB Tree Farm
PIERZ — The smell of pine trees wafts through the air as Christmas tunes, mingled with merry laughter and boots trudging through the snow, ring out to create a quaint holiday atmosphere at JB Tree Farm on any given day in December.
Nestled off County Road 43 west of Pierz, JB Tree Farm sits as one of the last remaining tree farms in the Brainerd lakes area.
John Blissenbach, a retired agricultural teacher, started the business 40 years ago. He and his son Jon, co-owner of the tree farm, aim to create a family-friendly holiday experience for their customers.
“It really is trying to make it an experience that they remember for a lifetime,” Jon said during a busy afternoon at the farm Sunday, Dec. 8.
Not only do JB Tree Farm customers come to the 60-acre farm to get a tree, they come to chat with old friends, drink free apple cider as they peruse the gift shop of handcrafted and wholesale Christmas decorations and perhaps pick out a wreath made by Jon and his wife and daughters.
John’s wife Pat, who died last year, originally dreamed up the wreaths and homemade craft items for the gift shop.
“Everything non-tree was Mom’s inspiration,” Jon said.
Jon’s wife Becky and daughters Ella and Alivia took over the wreath station, decorating nearly 300 a year.
“Jon and I have been married for 17 years, so I feel like we’ve helped out in some capacity that whole time,” Becky said, noting she really dove into the wreaths about five years ago when Jon’s mom wasn’t able to anymore.
“Christmas is just this fun, joyful time,” she added. “I feel like, even though as long as we’ve been here, there’s always people that come in here and are like, ‘I’ve never been here before,’ and, ‘This is so great.’ And it’s just fun to see that.”
With three different creative styles, Becky and her girls aim to create wreaths appealing to all shoppers.
“I think it’s interesting because … our tastes are all a little bit different, which is what makes it fun, though because not everybody has my taste either. That’s fine, so it’s nice having a different perspective,” Becky said in between decorating and helping customers.
For 12-year-old Ella and 10-year-old Alivia, the fun part is choosing ornaments and bows to put on their wreaths and then watching their creations sell.
“I like it when one of the wreaths that I made was sold,” Alivia said.
For John, the best part of the business is the customers, especially those who come back year after year, decade after decade.
“Visiting with the people,” he said without missing a beat when asked his favorite part of owning a Christmas tree farm.
“When we first started, there would be people that would come with the little guys in a sled or something,” he said. “Now those people are grown up and they’ve got grandkids in the sled. So it’s on the third generation.”
John chuckled as he thought about families who let their young children pick out the perfect tree and end up with the most expensive one on the farm, adding again, the business is all about the experience, letting families choose from eight different varieties of pre-cut trees or giving them a saw and free range to cut their own.
Customers have the choice of two different kinds of spruces, three pine varieties and three types of firs.
The spruces are the first to drop their needles, Jon said, and have stiffer branches than other kinds, perfect for supporting heavier ornaments.
Norway pines give more of the traditional Christmas tree look, he said, with long, wispy needles.
Right now, he added, customers are encouraged to cut their own trees because the abundance of snow in the back fields is making it hard for the employees to cut down enough trees, though there are usually about 500 pre-cut trees available at any given time.
The Blissenbachs will sell about 1,000 trees a year — some growing up to 16 feet — with the farm open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day between Thanksgiving and Christmas. From Thanksgiving to about Dec. 15 is the busiest time, John said, with this year feeling even more hectic because of Thanksgiving’s late date.
But whether there’s two customers or 22, John and his team pride themselves on offering good, friendly service.
Lhonda and Tyler Shequen noticed that top-notch service right away when they started coming to JB Tree Farm after hearing about it from a friend almost a decade ago.
“The owners were just so nice and welcoming,” Lhonda said, noting her four daughters love coming to the farm each year to choose a tree and drink hot cider. But the girls’ favorite activity is picking out seashells.
While digging through boxes of seashells might not sound like a usual part of the Christmas tree hunting process, it is at JB Tree Farm.
The idea started after John used to run up and down the beach collecting seashells during his annual trips to Florida with his wife to bring back and place around the house.
“And a lot of kids asked if they could pick them up, and I said, ‘Sure.’ So then we started putting boxes of them in there,” he said pointing to the shed full of wreaths. “And they can help themselves to them.”
Each of the Shequens’ girls have their own bag of seashells that daughter Aubrey said she places on her dresser every year.
The Little Falls family said they also like the variety of trees, the option to cut their own and the uniqueness of the items in the gift shop.
“Some of it’s handmade, so that’s always been pretty cool,” Tyler said.
Derik Brenny and his family were new to JB Tree Farm this year, after discovering most of the trees were picked over at the spot near his parents’ house in Foley where they usually hunt for a tree.
“So I just looked around and found this one and said, ‘What the heck,’ and gave it a whirl,” he said as he dragged his freshly cut tree through the snow, with family in tow.
Trudi Storbakken and her family discovered JB Tree Farm about three or four years ago, after a farm they had been going to closer to their home in Brainerd closed down.
“I think I love … the family feel, that it’s a family-run business,” Storbakken said. “And you don’t have to go far to find your tree, but we always find one. And that’s really fun, too. And there’s a lot of variety, and it’s close. It’s not a long drive, but it’s a nice drive. It’s kind of a fun drive to do, coming out to the Pierz area.”
Along with the good service, John Blissenbach prides himself on the family-oriented aspect of his business, with everyone working there either a direct relative or a close family friend.
Cousins Zak and Lane Otremba are two of those friends who have passed several years working for the Blissenbachs.
“I think it’s just a great atmosphere,” Zak said. “A lot of Christmas spirit and fun, good people to work for."
Even Jon and Becky’s 7-year-old son Ethan gets involved in the business, shoveling snow off walkways, picking up branches or helping out wherever he can.
Dwindling tree farms
With Love Lake Trees near Baxter closing up shop after last Christmas, JB Tree Farm is one of just a few places left for lakes area families to find their holiday tree.
Widman’s Tree Farm northeast of Pine River sells cut-your-own trees, usually ranging from 8 to 20-plus feet tall. Owner Paul Widman does not shape his trees but allows them to grow naturally, selling what’s left of a previous Christmas tree farm on his property.
Other tree farms in surrounding communities include Cornerstone Pines in Grey Eagle, Hinkemeyer Tree Farm in Rice, and Wee Trees in Royalton.
Dozens of other tree farms dot the state though, with a directory from Minnesota Grown — a Minnesota Department of Agriculture program — listing more than 60 locations to buy Christmas trees throughout Minnesota.
Not only do these businesses serve to provide a holiday staple for many families, according to a recent news release from the Department of Agriculture, Christmas tree farms support local economies, provide environmental health benefits to the state and provide habitats for wildlife.
Tree farmers plant as many as three new seedlings for each tree that’s cut down, the release stated, adding the trees act as carbon sinks as they grow, pulling carbon dioxide out of the area.
And for the Blissenbachs, Christmas trees are a way of life, with John and son tending to their crop year-round — planting, fertilizing, pruning, tagging and harvesting.
The key to their continuing success after 40 years, Jon said, is simplicity and being memorable.
“Keep it simple and non-commercial,” he said. “Something fun to always come back to each year.”
For the full list of tree farms in the Minnesota Grown directory, visit minnesotagrown.com/search-directory .
For more photos, go to https://bit.ly/2qyNzmd .
THERESA BOURKE may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa.