Kovalic’s open for business in 26th year

Published 1:09 pm Monday, November 28, 2016

Up a dirt driveway and tucked behind a giant green barn on Ecton Road, a family farm is bustling.

It’s an unseasonably warm November day, but a small fire is going and the smell of fresh firewood burning fills the air. Half a dozen dogs of a variety of breeds trot around the grounds and a tiny pot-bellied pig oinks as she sniffs about looking for someone to share their lunch with her. 

With the Thanksgiving holiday over, the Christmas season is in full swing at Kovalic’s Christmas Trees farm. The farm officially opened for its 26th season Friday. 

Inside the barn, the aroma of pine needles envelopes visitors as the children, grandchildren and family friends of Peter and Jackie Kovalic rush about helping customers. 

One family friend strings together remnants of freshly cut pine for decor while a pair of daughters and another friend make wreaths. Half a dozen grandchildren work quickly as visitors from near and far bring their selected trees to the barn to be prepared for their journey home. 

Pete Kovalic walks among the nearly eight acres of trees, some only knee-high and others reaching 10 feet or more, as he talks about his tree farm. 

“I’ve alway wanted to grow Christmas trees,” he said. “I’ve wanted to do this since I was in forestry school. Christmas trees are just an age-old tradition, it seems the holiday revolves around the tree sometimes.”

The farm opened in 1990 after the Kovalics bought property adjacent to their existing farm at auction.

Soon after the Kovalics acquired the property, Pete set to work on establishing the tree farm, something he said was a lifelong dream. As a retired forester for the U.S. Forest Service, Pete knows what it takes to successfully raise trees.

Kovalic said he loves the time of year when his farm opens, mostly because Christmas is his favorite holiday, but he always enjoys spending time in the woods. 

He bought the land in 1989. But Christmas trees take between seven to 10 years to fully mature, he said. So Pete bought trees from another grower and sold them on his lot for the first few years.

At one time, Kovalic had about 10,000 trees and 15 different species on his farm. But he has slowed the operation down in recent years — partly to gauge interest and also because he’s more tired at his age, he said. 

He sells about 450 every year, mostly at Christmas time, but landscapers buy them, too.

The farm opens on the Friday after Thanksgiving each year and stays open until Christmas Eve. 

“You’d be surprised, but some people wait until Christmas Eve and want to come pick a tree,” he said. “We try to be accommodating.” 

Pete said one year, a family with a son away at college wanted to keep their tradition of choosing and cutting a tree, and he made sure they could. 

“Their son couldn’t come in until the night of Dec. 23,” he said. “So, we stayed open and let them come cut the tree.” 

Although customers may only visit Kovalic’s one month out of the year, raising and tending to the trees is a year-round job for the family, Pete said. 

“It’s very intensive,” he said. 

Throughout the spring and summer, they mow between the trees, and spray for weeds and bugs. In June, the trees are sheared. Which is a meticulous process, Pete said. 

“We have to shear the trees to get the desired shape,” he said. “Depending on the tree, you have to make sure you shear it at just the right time. You have to be careful what you cut, because you can only cut this year’s growth.”

Pete said by the time families are ready to cut their trees, they naturally begin to take on a yellow color. Trees have to be sprayed to help them keep their green color, even when the weather turns cold.

By November, the Kovalics are starting to clean up around the farm and make sure everything looks nice for customers.

There are several varieties of trees at the farm: White Pine, Scotch Pine, Canaan Fir, Norway Spruce, White Spruce, Blue Spruce and Douglas Fir, among others. Pete even experiments with exotic varieties, like the Nordman Fir from Georgia, the Turkey Fir and the Korean Fir, with varying success. 

For most varieties, trees are $10 per foot up to six feet, $11 per foot for trees eight to 10 feet and $12 per foot for trees taller than 10 feet. 

The tree farm is a choose-and-cut operation, so visitors wander the farm with saw in hand searching for their perfect tree. Pete said it’s not uncommon to walk through the farm and find special markers left by the families. 

“You’ll be walking through and you’ll find a glove in this tree, take a few more steps and there’s a scarf in another, then maybe you’ll walk a little further and there will be a jacket hanging from that one,” he said with a laugh. “That’s their way of marking the trees they like, but they want to keep looking so they put something there in case they don’t find something better.” 

Pete said the thrill of choosing and cutting your own tree is what his operation is all about. He said his trees are fresher and more attractive than cut trees at grocery stores, and he would never even consider an artificial tree. 

“I wouldn’t put up a fake tree even if there wasn’t a living tree around,” he said. 

The experience is all about family, too, he said. And the way Pete operates his farm is proof enough of how much he values family. These days three generations of his own family make the farm run each year, and his son, Peter Kovalic Jr., has even started a Christmas tree operation of his own. 

The younger Peter has been growing trees at his property on Little Stoner Road for about 15 years and opened up for sales for the first time this year. He follows the same business hours and price structure as his father. 

He said he couldn’t imagine doing anything else around the Christmas season. 

“I’ve spent about half my life around the Christmas tree farm,” he said. “It’s just a family thing. For the last 25 years we’ve been doing this as a family and it really keeps us together. It got in my blood and I’m very passionate about it now. I know my siblings are, too.” 

Peter Jr. has about nine acres of tree and said he hopes to expand in the spring. 

He said choosing your own Christmas tree is a tradition he hopes won’t die anytime soon. 

“There’s something special about getting out of the city, off the sidewalks and out of the store with your family, walking through nature, picking your tree and spending that quality time together,” he said. “It’s about the experience.” 

Kovalic’s Christmas Tree farm, located at 487 Ecton Road, is open from 1 p.m. to dark Sunday through Thursday and from 11 a.m. to dark Friday and Saturday.

About Whitney Leggett

Whitney Leggett is managing editor of The Winchester Sun and Winchester Living magazine. To contact her, email whitney.leggett@winchestersun.com or call 859-759-0049.

email author More by Whitney