FALUN, Alta. — Pine scents fill the air as Fir Ever Green Tree Farm owner Peter Kappeler trims a few inches from the base of a balsam fir. This tree was selected by a family looking to create special Christmas memories.
“Some of the trees even come with a free bird’s nest,” joked Peter.
He and his wife, Judy, have owned and operated the quarter section tree farm near Falun in central Alberta since 2010.
Their daughters, Julia and Amanda, are university students who pitch in when they can during the busy Christmas season. Friends and extended family also help out.
Once trees are wrapped in mesh netting and loaded for transport, the many repeat customers warm themselves in the cozy log cabin or gather around the outdoor fire to sip hot chocolate or apple cider or eat home-baked cookies provided by Julia.
Others are cuddled up on straw bales on a horse drawn sleigh pulled by gentle Percherons for a ride to round out the experience.
Judy recalled a kindergarten class last year that wanted to see the trees, where they grew and how they were cut and baled.
Peter came from a tree farm in Switzerland while Judy grew up on a pig farm at Lacombe, Alta. They met through a farm exchange program and produced berries, hay and Christmas trees in Switzerland for almost two decades.
“The winters here are brutal,” said Peter, comparing them to the moderate European climate.
“It’s lots of work. We groom them every year, trimming five to seven inches. That shape does not just happen,” said Peter.
Peter said that real Christmas trees are popular in his homeland and Eastern Canada, but not so much in Alberta.
“Eighty percent of people in Europe still have real Christmas trees. Here it’s maybe 10 percent.”
Peter said many of his customers are originally from the Maritimes or British Columbia where real Christmas trees are more of a tradition.
Judy said there are dozens of landscape tree farms around the province but Fir Ever Green Tree Farm is one of just a handful that also cater to the U-cut Christmas tree market.
“We have the largest Christmas tree farm in Alberta,” she said.
Peter said his seasonal evergreen tree sales number between 200 and 300. He estimated 20 percent of his land is dedicated to growing Christmas trees like Colorado blue spruce, white spruce and balsam. They also grow Black Hills spruce, Scots pine, Ponderosa pine, Lodgepole pine, Siberian larch and paper birch.
Most popular are the fragrant balsam, which holds its soft green needles for several weeks. The Kappelers also sell potted Christmas trees, firewood and handmade Christmas decorations, including wreaths made by Judy.
“The kids started out with it but now they’re in school so I took over,” she said.
Judy’s father creates the woodwork pieces and Judy also receives help from a neighbour.
The majority of the farm is dedicated to the landscape tree business for both residential and commercial customers. Trees are available in a variety of sizes and types from seedlings and potted mobile trees to basket trees 4.5 metres high.
They use a tree spade to transport trees to the desired location.
The tree business is different from regular crops in several respects.
“Trees cannot be insured,” said Judy.
Unlike annual crops in Alberta, Christmas trees take 12 to 15 years before they’re ready to harvest.
“You plant the trees. You see them grow. The work is all outside. It’s enjoyable. It’s rewarding.”