O’ Christmas Tree, where will I get you next year? Smrekar’s Acres Tree Farm concludes 10 years of tradition
The cozy room was a stark contrast against the freezing below-zero temperatures enveloping the Christmas-trees-to-be outside.
For the past 10 years, Natascha and Jay Smrekar’s family has been a part of Christmas tree traditions for 500 families each year. Until now — 2013 will be the farm’s final year. In fact, this is the final weekend.
“People love it,” Smrekar said. “That’s the hardest part. People say, ‘But we’ve always come here to get our tree.’”
Now, Smrekar said, is time for her family.
Smrekar was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma in October 2012. During the past year, she has undergone surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy. Smrekar is cancer-free today.
“Our holiday season is taken up every year,” Smrekar said. “We just decided, it’s been 10 years, we’ll just let it go.”
She said a lot of people don’t realize the labor involved in taking care of the farm.
“Up until this past year, I did it all,” Smrekar said. Smrekar is a two-handed shearer who can trim a tree in under two minutes.
This past summer, while Smrekar was completing cancer treatments, her children Jesse, 14, and Tatiana, 16, picked up shears and hit the woods to help their mom commence the final year of Smrekar’s Acres Tree Farm. They may decide to wholesale next year, but haven’t made any definite plans.
The 40-acre farm has an assortment of balsam fir, spruce, white pine and red pine trees covering 17 acres. Trees are generally around 8 to 10 feet tall. In prior years, when a tree was harvested, another would be planted in its place. Not this year.
A move home
The Smrekars, originally from the Twin Cities area, were living in Colorado when they decided they wanted to return home to Minnesota. In 2003, Jay took a position with the Chippewa National Forest. They settled on a parcel of land previously used as a Christmas tree farm just south of Bemidji. Natascha substitute teaches in the Bemidji school district.
Since putting down roots near Laporte, the Smrekars have been spreading holiday cheer with Christmas trees and decorative wreaths. Handmade wreaths adorned with colorful ribbons and pinecones are hung throughout the wreath room ready to be placed upon customer’s doors. Wreaths are available in sizes ranging from 18 to 60-inches.
Customers are given the opportunity to browse the property in search of a perfect specimen or the can buy a pre-cut tree. Smrekar said about 90 percent of people prefer to cut down their tree.
“It’s a very happy, positive business. People are happy to be out here, for the most part. They argue and take hours to decide on their tree,” Smrekar joked.
The most popular tree is a balsam fir. Spruce is the second-most selected. Smrekar prefers a huggable white pine. She said long-needled pines tend to hold needles longer.
“My personal favorite would be a white pine. They’re soft, they’re lovely, they’re fluffy. You can hug them and they don’t poke you.”
Smrekar said her kids have asked why she continues to prune shaggy looking trees. “You never give up on a pine. You can give up on a spruce or balsam, but you never give up on a pine,” she tells them.
While at Smrekar’s Acres, families are invited to go on a horse-drawn hayride. Smrekar bakes cookies every year and prepares hot apple cider to enjoy in the farm’s wreath room.
“Last weekend was insane,” Smrekar said. “We had almost twice as much business last weekend than we have had ever.” She said they were out of cookies, out of cider, out of maps and had three broken saws.
Smrekar’s Acres outfits tree hunters with a saw, drag sled and a map of the field and offers netting for easier hauling of the bundle of Christmas joy. The is a member of Minnesota Grown and the Minnesota Christmas Tree Association.
“We don’t irrigate. We don’t fertilize. We don’t use pesticides.” Smrekar said. “We don’t need to destroy the land for a Christmas tree that’s going to be in your house for a few weeks. It’s supposed to be about love and enjoyment.”
Smrekar refers people to the Minnesota Christmas Tree Association website — www.mncta.com — to locate alternate sites for next year. She noted the Christmas Forest on the east side of Bemidji is another location.
“Our biggest nemesis is weather,” Smrekar said. “This weekend is going to be bitterly cold, but then people love the snow.”
Her own Christmas miracle
A storm Natascha didn’t seen coming followed the high winds and treacherous rains of July 2, 2012. The storm devastated Smrekar’s Acres.
“I was already hurting that summer,” Smrekar said. “I didn’t know I had cancer yet, but I had a lot of pain.”
Smrekar was an active distance runner. She noticed pain in her groin and didn’t think much of it — until it didn’t go away. An MRI revealed it was a fractured femur, cancer in the bone, and a tumor in her hamstring and a tumor in her lung.
When Smrekar was initially tested, Sanford Bemidji Medical Center referred her to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester where she was diagnosed as having Ewing’s Sarcoma.
Smrekar said only 1 percent of cancers are classified as a sarcoma. Ewing’s is typically a juvenile cancer that has a high rate of recurrence.
“Ewing’s Sarcoma is even more rare than that,” Smrekar said. “Only about 12 adult women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with it this year.”
In adolescents, Smrekar said, Ewing’s Sarcoma is approximately 60 to 70 percent curable. As an adult, Smrekar reached stage four with a 95 percent chance of the cancer returning.
In November 2012, Smrekar suffered a full break in her femur after already enduring a round of chemotherapy. She now has a titanium prosthetic femur.
“It’s been a year of physical therapy to get out of the wheelchair, off the walker, off the cane,” Smrekar explained.
Chemotherapy in January was followed by radiation in May and another round of chemotherapy in July. A lung surgery in August and radiation of her lungs in September.
“I’m feeling good. It’s wonderful to not be on chemotherapy,” Smrekar said with a smile. “Hair is growing back in.”
The is the final weekend for Smrekar’s Acres Tree Farm. The farm will be open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. today and Sunday. The farm is located about 15 miles south of Bemidji at 45384 285th Ave. in Laporte. Telephone: (218) 224-3465. Smrekar’s Acres Tree Farm donates 10 percent of all proceeds to the Bemidji and Laporte food shelves. Trees range from $20 to $40. Smrekar’s Acres accepts cash or checks.
For a list of Minnesota Christmas tree farms, visit www.mncta.com.