Gerry Kirkpatrick always thought selling Christmas trees would be a recession-proof business.
Out of work from the logging industry in 1981, Kirkpatrick got the idea to grow and sell Christmas trees.
“I could see there was a hole that needed to be filled for quality trees,” he said.
He leased an eight-and-a-half-mile strip of land underneath the BC Hydro power lines and began to clear and plant roughly 100 acres of trees.
“I planted 30,000 trees for the first five years,” he said. He had to hire up to eight people to help him groom the trees in the 1990s, when business boomed.
About 14 years ago he sourced another lot near the Alberni Valley Airport, and slowly began clearing it while getting rid of his existing stock on the power line.
He has worked this lot for the past nine years. Kirkpatrick and his wife Connie have operated Kirkpatrick Christmas Trees for 31 years in total, including a retail lot near Zellers.
Today, Kirkpatrick says u-cut tree lots are enjoying a resurgence in popularity.
“I have had customers tell me they have returned to a real tree because of the u-cut experience and got rid of their plastic tree,” he said.
Kirkpatrick visited a tree farm in Hawaii many years ago and the owner told him customers buying her trees on a retail lot grumbled at the $10 price tag. Yet she didn’t have enough parking for the people visiting her tree lot to cut down their own tree for $25.
Mica Verbrugge has also been in the Christmas tree business for a long time, even though he is only 29 years old.
Verbrugge owns and operates Whiskey Creek U-Cut, the original u-cut lot in Central Vancouver Island according to Kirkpatrick.
Verbrugge grew up working on his father Tom’s Christmas tree lot. He also has fond memories of his own family’s tradition of cutting their own tree.
“We used to bundle up with six other families. I remember snow and trees and hotdogs over the fire,” he says.
When the opportunity presented itself to work for another grower and eventually buy that tree farm, Mica jumped. He farms 60 acres under the power line with a team of four people.
They collective put in 1,200 hours a year sculpting the trees in preparation for the Christmas season.
Verbrugge is also in the business of creating family memories, this time for others. He has several fire pits where families can roast hotdogs and drink free hot chocolate while they are out choosing their own trees.
Whiskey Creek U-cut is less than 30 kilometres east of Port Alberni, just off the highway on Melrose. It is well marked, and popular with people from Port Alberni as well as Oceanside.
Tom Verbrugge, Mica’s father, got into the Christmas tree business 16 years ago after working in the logging industry. He acquired a 40-acre lot near the airport and started cultivating trees.
Tom’s Trees sells a variety of trees, but his most popular is Douglas Fir.
Like his son, Tom Verbrugge also offers free hot chocolate and hotdogs and a warm fire for people who visit his farm.
Tom also has a retail lot at Walmart.
While Tom Verbrugge would be the first to tell you that breaking into the Christmas tree business is hard work, Kirkpatrick says it’s a rewarding job.
“It’s the only business I know that you get gratification from it,” he says. “I get so many comments…on how positive the experience is. People are happy when they’re buying a Christmas tree.”
Ye still need a tree?
◆ STILL LOOKING FOR A CHRISTMAS TREE? Kirkpatrick and Tom’s Trees u-cut lots in Port Alberni are open through the weekend, barring heavy snow. Also Whiskey Creek U-Cut.
◆ TREES CAN also be found at Kirkpatrick’s lot on Third and Angus (across from Zellers), Tom’s Trees at Walmart and Naesgaar’ds Farm Market.
◆ NAESGAARD’S also has a Christmas Wonderland full of decorations set up.
—With files from Wawmeesh Hamilton, Alberni Valley News