Summer drought doesn’t dry up all the Christmas cheer

Nov. 27 – This year’s stock of Christmas trees didn’t feel the heat as a Stage 2 drought hit southeastern Connecticut over the summer.

But the seedlings certainly did.

The young trees are generally shorter than 3 feet tall and not tall enough to survive periods of extreme heat on their own. Just ask Vinny Ukleja of Ukleja’s Tree Farm and the 800 seedlings he planted between April 15th and July 1st.

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

Ukleja and his wife Susan have owned the tree farm at their home on Old Colchester Road 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, a variety he no longer grows after deer devastated his stand in a heavy snowstorm in 1996. But this year he had to buy 800 trees just to survive the season.

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

Ukleja explained that due to the lost seedlings and increased commodity prices across the country, he had to raise the reserve price for a tree from $45 to $50. The price of fertilizers has also increased this year, Ukleja said. That means its harvest for the next six to 10 years — how long it takes for trees to reach the “popular” height range of 6.5 to 10 feet — is in jeopardy.

“I basically put them in the ground and I hope they grow this year,” he said.

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

After a similar drought hit the area in 2020, Geer purchased an irrigation system dubbed the “water wheel.” The system consists of a 640-foot hose wrapped around a wheel that can be moved around the 100-acre property. They bought a second bike last year and rode both every day during last summer’s drought.

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

“Once a tree is established, they’re pretty tough,” Geer said. “They can take a lot.”

“The trees that are currently being sold are not affected,” Geer said of the drought.

Geer said his trees have gone from $65 to $75 this year due to supply chain issues and the rising cost of diesel fuel. He and his family grow six species of trees: Fraser Fir, Canadian Fir, Concolor Fir, Douglas Fir, Blue Spruce, and White Pine. He said he saw no discoloration or other signs that the elder trees were badly affected by the summer drought.

While irrigation systems were a viable option for Geer, they were not for Ukleja and his 15-acre farm.

“It wouldn’t pay me to water this,” Ukleja said.

Geer has encountered a problem that Ukleja doesn’t have: a lack of seedlings.

Geer explained that local tree growers usually source their seeds from abroad. He gets his from the south and about five years ago there was a shortage that is now affecting his stock.

Ukleja said he sources his seeds from the Midwest and doesn’t have to worry about shortages. His only criticism was the increased cost of the product.

“I have no problems, except that the price of seedlings has increased by 20% compared to last year,” said Ukleja.

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

Zach King was at Geer’s Sunday afternoon picking out a 6-foot Douglas fir with his wife and children. He said that this is the fifth year they have bought their Christmas tree from Geers “superbly fresh trees” and that he hasn’t noticed much difference in the colour, but that the sizes may have been slightly smaller.

“I haven’t noticed as much new growth as in previous years,” King said, noting the lack of new branches on the trees.

Kevin Beteta made the same observations about Ukleja.

Beteta picked out his Christmas tree on Sunday afternoon with his wife and two children. Beteta said they moved to Groton last fall and bought their tree from Ukleja last year, so they decided to come back. He said they liked the price and size of the tree they took home and noticed no discoloration on the trees, just a lack of new growth.

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

The two farms offer holiday and seasonal activities. Geer’s had a sausage and pepper stand, a popcorn stand, and a table selling hot chocolate, hot cider, and cider donuts.

At Ukleja there is a gingerbread house, a railway play area and Santa’s Castle where visitors can take seasonal photos. On December 10th they are hosting a “Family Day” where they offer photos with Santa and Mrs. Claus, snacks and coffee from 12pm to 3pm

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