By Stacey Butler
agricultural communication student
In the middle of a brilliantly blue sky, the sun shined, warming the shoulders of the people hiking along the trail surrounded by enormous pine trees. The air was filled with the fresh pine aroma, as guests were greeted at the roadside shack and handed a map of the farm along with a sharp saw. People of all ages chattered and took in the sights, remarking on the vast number of trees to choose from, as they set off to find the perfect Christmas tree for their home.
Off in the distance, the putt-putt of the orange tractor could be heard making a loop around the farm, pausing so freshly cut trees can be laid on the trailer and transported back to the entrance. Seated upon the tractor, wearing a permanent smile is the owner of Hickory Ridge Tree Farm, Karl Rieppel.
Rieppel waves as he drives his tractor around his 75-acre Christmas tree farm. The final stop on his route is back at the shack where Rieppel’s sons, John and James, can be found measuring the trees and collecting payments. The high school and college age employees then take the trees to be baled in netting. Lastly, the fresh cut tree is carried and tied to the roof of the vehicle before the guests are thanked and wished “Merry Christmas” as they head for home.
Rieppel’s parents, Perry and Ruth, purchased the 60-acre farm in Alexandria, Ohio back in 1954. By 1957, they had begun planting Christmas trees in what was previously a soybean field. A few years later, Karl purchased an additional 15-acres, bringing the land total up to 75-acres.
Along the way, Rieppel earned his degree from the Ohio State University in liberal arts before joining the United States Army.
“I was active duty for two and a half years and then I was a reservist for another 30 years,” Rieppel recalls. “I was in the 32nd air defense command.”
When he completed his active duty, Rieppel earned a master’s in business administration from the University of Miami in Ohio and eventually became an educator. Rieppel built his house on the property in 1976 for his family.
“We’ve been here all our lives,” Rieppel’s son, John, said. “We’ve seen people, their kids as little babies, they’ve been coming here forever. We would start recognizing people, and they recognize you, so it’s kind of cool to be a part of their life.”
Christmas tree farming is a year-round operation for Rieppel and his family. Every spring, Rieppel begins the process of planting young saplings. Each tree will be sprayed to prevent disease and bugs from ending their young existence. Summertime includes maintaining the trees, removing dead trees, and mowing all the land.
The Christmas trees grow over the course of roughly 10 years before they are selected by a family in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Rieppel and his crew will trim and shape the trees to look iconic like those in Christmas stories. Although the farm does offer tree purchase year-round, the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas are by far the most popular time for tree sales.
Even with the production of fake and pre-lit Christmas trees, the choose and cut tree farms are still doing well in business. It was difficult for Rieppel to put a number on the average amount of trees they sell annually because it depends solely on the weather. Some years they sell around 1,000 trees and then in other years they can sell well over 2,000.
Hickory Ridge Tree Farm is home to six varieties of trees: Norway Spruce, Blue Spruce, Fraser Fir, White Pine, Scotch Pine and Canaan Fir. When the Rieppel’s first began selling Christmas trees it was originally a heavy market for Scotch Pines. Now the Canaan Fir, which thrives in Ohio soil, has since taken the lead.
The Canaan Fir is a genetic cross of the northern balsam fir from the northern United States and Canada and the Fraser balsam fir from the southeastern United States. The blue-green, flattish needles are a silvery color on the underside of the branches. Its fragrance is sweet and spicy like balsam and Fraser fir. Its soft lacing branches are sturdy enough to support ornaments of many sizes. Needle retention is very good for this water loving tree. (Tree Varieties, 2018)
“If we have good weather on these weekends before Christmas, we sell a lot of them,” Rieppel said. “If we don’t, then we usually sell about half.”
One thing Rieppel does regardless of tree sales is overplant. Overplanting helps ensure he has a steady supply of growing trees for the years to come. As a result, Hickory Ridge Tree Farms is notorious for its tall trees. The tallest tree they have sold so far was to a shopping center and stood 30 feet tall.
“People come here for the big ones,” Rieppel boasts. “We sell a lot of them in the 15 to 20-foot range. People come here because they know they can get them here.”
However, Rieppel is also the reason many people continue to return to his farm year after year. On December 1, Hickory Ridge Tree Farm was nothing shy of a steady flow of foot traffic. Regardless of whether it was their first time at the farm or their annual visit, every person had something kind to say about Rieppel and his farm.
“I remember my first time coming here and I didn’t know that it was cash or check,” Troy Widdis of Bexley, Ohio recalls of his first visit 15 years ago. “Mr. Rieppel just said, ‘send me a check,’ you know – the honor system, which is pretty cool.”
Widdis was searching for his own tree and was accompanied by his daughter and her boyfriend. Both houses were able to find a manageable tree to take home.
First time visitors, Sonnie and Alyssa Jones came on the recommendation of others. The family farm they had been frequenting closed when the owner passed away this year.
“There were two different families that recommended these guys [Hickory Ridge Tree Farms],” Alyssa Jones said. “So, I was like well this might be a good place. The kids love the ponds.”
Hickory Ridge Tree Farms has been the site for photography sessions and even proposals. The 75-acres houses thousands of Christmas trees, multiple ponds, deer, birds and other forest dwelling wildlife.
At the age of 76, Rieppel spoke about the future of Hickory Ridge Tree Farm. Ultimately, he hopes the farm will remain in his family for generations to come.
“It depends how long I go but I figure I’ll probably give it up in five years,” Rieppel said. “Then they’ll either maintain some of it or let it go back to forest.”
Regardless of what happens in the years to come, Rieppel is enjoying his life as a Christmas tree farmer. He spends a lot of his time tending his trees, maintaining the land, and planting for the future. His infectious grin can be spotted immediately as he comes up over the hill atop his tractor with a trailer overflowing with Christmas trees.
“My father was an engineer and a white-collar worker. I was a college teacher and a reservist, so this was a physical hobby for us,” Rieppel explains. “And it’s worked out good for me.”
Open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve, Hickory Ridge Tree Farm is located just two miles west of Alexandria, Ohio on State Route 37. Prices are based on the variety and height, ranging from $30 to $300 per tree.
This feature story was written by Stacey Butler, an agricultural communication student enrolled in the Agricultural Communication 2531 course during the 2019 Autumn Semester. Dr. Joy Rumble instructed the course.