SOMERS — There are about 500 Christmas tree farms in the Nutmeg state, but Kathy Kogut of Hemlock Hill Tree Farms estimates that at most 10 make most of their living from the seasonal sales.
"You can't survive on [just] Christmas trees. You can't make enough money," said Kogut, 63, whose family has sold Christmas trees in Somers since 1987. She and her husband Bill, 67, began a nursery business in the late 1960s in Suffield, and they continue to run a nursery in addition to Hemlock Hill.
Hemlock Hill sells about 2,500 cut-your-own trees and about 500 pre-cut trees a season, with a typical 7-foot tree selling for $40.
"The most we ever did was probably 2001, [with] 3,200 [retail] trees that year, because 9/11 really drew families together," Kogut said. "Coming to choose-and-cut farm, it's not about the tree, it's the experience."
Many customers at Hemlock Hill come year after year, building that day's experience into a story of family and friends that symbolizes much more than just a full and fragrant tree.
Tara Fleming, 32, of Simsbury, has been coming to Hemlock Hill since she was 6. Fleming, who was wearing a reindeer headband Friday, said, "This is my favorite day of the year. I love traditions."
She was buying a 6-foot-tall tree for the home she shares with Matt Smith, 31. Smith, whose speech still reveals a trace of his native Minnesota, said he's always loved Christmas, but the holiday has gotten to be even better "since we've been together the last three, four years," he said.
"He's gladly increased his joy," Fleming interjected, and Smith finished: "It's increased exponentially."
Smith asked Fleming to marry him a year ago on the property, as he was crouched down by a Christmas tree.
Fleming said Friday was bittersweet, because this is the last year that Hemlock Hill Farm will sell trees to the public. Their lease on the land in Somers is up, and they have to have all of the trees and stumps gone and a cover crop planted by Dec. 31, 2014.
"This place is my childhood," Fleming said. "It's very sad."
The Koguts, too, are struggling with this bittersweet season. They will continue to sell wholesale trees from their land in Enfield next year, but they will miss meeting customers.
"I love the people. Everyone is so nice. Everyone's in a good mood at Christmas time," Kogut said. "We've made such nice friends and acquaintances" who were very supportive when her husband had a stroke a few years ago.
The Koguts can't relocate the cut-your-own business to the leased property in Enfield because that land owner doesn't want thousands of cars coming over the course of a few weeks.
Whatever doesn't sell this month will have to be chipped up. How many trees will be destroyed?
"Depends on what we sell. Some people think we're already closed," Kogut said. "We probably have 5,000 salable trees right now … 7,000 trees standing. We don't anticipate selling more than 3,000."
One of the problems is that hundreds of trees are 5 feet tall, and nearly everyone wants a 6- to 8-foot tree. They just needed a couple more years to get the remaining stock to the perfect height.
"It's nobody's fault," Kogut said. "You know when you sign a lease, someday it might be up."
Jill Krieger and Ann Gromak of Tolland, their husbands and some of their grown children were having a tailgating lunch at Hemlock Hill Friday, with turkey sandwiches, hot chocolate, Christmas cookies and Christmas music. The women started bringing their families here the Friday or Saturday after Thanksgiving 22 years ago.
"We usually dress up like Santa Claus. We're a little more subdued," Gromak said.
"It makes us sad," Krieger said, referring to the end of Hemlock Hill.
"One year we tried all the other places. We didn't like them. The trees aren't as good," Gromak said. And, she said, everyone's so friendly at this farm. "Especially the lady that makes the wreaths and the bows. She's so nice."
That would be Kathy Kogut, who hand-decorates wreaths to order while families select their trees, from traditional red velvet bows and pine cones to more blingy designs that appeal to young girls.
As dedicated customers as these two families are, they represent one of the challenges to the Christmas tree business. While the Kriegers bought a good-sized tree and a plain wreath — she'd kept her decorations from last year — the Gromaks were just along for the camaraderie because they are going to visit family out of town for the holidays.
Last year, the farm sold 20 percent fewer trees than average.
In a typical year, the Christmas tree business does about $145,000 in revenue. The nursery and tree farm combined support both Koguts, their son-in-law and five full-time agricultural workers 10 months a year. The tree farm also employs a bunch of part-timers on weekends who help the customers.
Their son BJ works full-time in November and December, even as he continues to work as a police officer; their daughters pitch in too.
That money also pays the rent on land in Somers and Enfield where they grow the trees for 10 to 15 years before they're large enough to be sold. This year, because they have less land in production as they've gradually scaled back in Somers, they had to buy 2,000 trees from out of state to sell wholesale to other retailers.
The cost of buying those trees and shipping them in means they clear just $2 a tree to pay for their time in arranging the transactions.
Hemlock Hill Farm, 108 Billings Road, Somers, is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily.