ORONOCO -- Matt and Kristi Florek spotted a 7-foot Black Hills spruce at Wittlief Christmas Tree Farm Sunday.

The Rochester family was in search of a perfect Christmas tree.

Kristi and their daughter, Charlotte, 12, pulled out the measuring tape -- 7 feet tall, about 5 feet wide.

“That’s perfect,” Charlotte said.

Matt, with saw in hand, asked them and their two younger children, Henry, 3, and Mercy, 7, if it was the perfect tree.

“Or do we keep looking?”

The vote was to keep looking.

The Floreks were one of more than 130 families who navigated a slushy gravel road Sunday to hunt for, select and cut down their Christmas tree at the rural Oronoco tree farm.

The most common reason people give for their preference of a live tree?

“The smell,” Clint said.

The first weekend of December is usually the busiest for the business, with the weekend after Thanksgiving coming a close second.

“This weekend has been pretty busy,” said Amy Wittlief, tree farm co-owner. “That’s probably because this year Thanksgiving was so late.”

Last year, Witlieff farm had its highest sales -- about 350 trees. Owners Clint and Amy Wittlief expect to at least match that this year.

Clint, who returned to his family’s farm after a stint in the Air Force and other jobs in Minnesota, established the farm 11 years ago when he began planting pine trees.

“I wasn’t sure what to do with the farmland,” he said. “I didn’t have the equipment to farm it.”

He considered renting it to a farmer but then moved some of the land into a 10-year conservation reserve program. The fir trees he planted in 2001 were one of the land use guidelines in the program. The CRP commitment expired at the same time the trees were mature enough to cut down.

In 2002, a nesting pair of eagles moved onto the farm, which helped curtail some of the tree killing pests.

The first year in business, Clint sold a dozen trees. Each year over the next two years, the business about doubled sales. The fourth year, bad weather cut sales back to a dozen trees.

However, with the protection of the eagles, by planting three trees for each one cut down, and the help of their sons Wyatt and Eric and daughter Sara, the business steadily grew.

Clint said he expects to at least match last year’s sales total this year. This business and a hunting resort he and his wife run in Ontario, Canada, are becoming the couple’s main sources of income. They plant trees in April, run the resort from May to October and return to begin pruning and preparing the Christmas trees.

“This fits like a glove with the resort,” Clint said.

The farm also provides a steady supply of happy customers.

“It’s wonderful,” he said. “Everybody’s happy to come out here.”

Amy bakes cookies and keeps warm cider on hand for customers. Sometimes there’s a wait to use one of the farm’s dozen saws -- which tend to dwindle through the season.

“This year, somebody brought one back,” Clint said. “People don’t mean to take them but it happens.”

The farm has a variety of firs -- mostly Frazier firs -- and a few white pines along with some Black Hills spruce.

The Floreks continued making their way in the snow around hunting for trees.

“That one’s too round,” Kristi said.

“It’s practically a shrub,” Charlotte said.

They returned to the Black Hills spruce they first saw. Charlotte and Matt took turns using the saw to cut down the tree.

Matt said the smell is a main reason, but he and his wife added that tradition is part of it.

“We say, ‘remember the year we had the top heavy tree that kept falling over,’ or, ‘do you remember that round one,” Kristi said. “It makes a family culture and a family tradition.”

Wittlief Christmas Tree Farm is one of dozens of cut your own live tree farms around the state and region. The Minnesota Christmas Tree Association has a list of affiliated farms from around the state.

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