MOLINE — Rick Wyffels knew the year was coming.
He knew at some point the Christmas tree farm he operates with his wife, Kathy, wouldn’t be open for the tree-buying season. He knew their driveway wouldn’t fill up with cars on the morning after Thanksgiving. They wouldn’t meet first-time visitors, and they wouldn’t see regulars — the ones who had been coming since the tree farm opened in 1997 — for their annual catch-up.
Wyffels had been bracing for it since 2012, when a drought killed the roughly 2,000 trees he and Kathy had planted.
“Uh oh,” he remembers telling his wife that winter. “There’s going to be a year where we’re not going to be able to sell, because we’re not going to have tall enough trees.”
He’s sad to say it, but this is that year.
“We just can’t be open,” Wyffels said. “People want tall trees. They want the tallest tree they can find.”
‘THIS IS JUST A GAP YEAR’
Standing in a snow-covered field just off of North Shore Drive on a recent morning, Wyffels walked around holding up a wooden measuring pole that extends up to 10 feet. Most of his current crop of trees barely hit the 5-foot mark, making them too short to sell by Wyffels’ standard.
He said those 2012 trees would’ve been 9-year-olds, a ripe age (and, by extension, height) for selling this winter.
“What a lot of people don’t realize is you have to have a rotation,” Wyffels said. “Even if we were to open and just sell the short trees, we’d end up with the same problem next year.”
Speaking of next year: Yes, they plan to be back in business in 2019. By then, Wyffels said, the 2,500 trees on his property should all have grown about 18 inches taller.
“This is just a gap year,” the 70-year-old said. “We’re going to let the trees we have grow.”
‘MAKE MEMORIES TOGETHER’
The Wyffels Tree Farm is one of only a few places offering cut-your-own Christmas trees in the metro Quad-Cities. Another is Up North Pine, a tree farm in northwest Davenport that Kim Kappeler started in 1997.
His daughter, Kara Clark, confirmed the 40-acre family farm will have plenty of trees available starting at 9 a.m. Friday.
They’ve never had to take a season off, but their trees don’t stand as tall as they once did, Clark said. Some of their trees previously reached 12 feet; now the tallest ones go up to 8 or 9 feet.
“It’s hard work,” Clark said. “We’ve seen other tree farms open in the area. They seem to come and go real fast.”
After 20 years, Up North Pine also has a loyal customer base, Clark said.
Those returning customers have something in common: They prefer a fresh-cut real tree over a from-the-box one.
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And they’re not alone. In 2015, more than 25 million real Christmas trees were sold in the U.S. That’s more than the 12.5 million fake trees that were sold in 2015, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.
“There’s something about picking out your own tree,” Clark said. “And then, the next morning, you come down the stairs to the smell of the Christmas tree. It’s just special.”
Getting the tree is already her 6-year-old daughter’s favorite Christmas activity.
“She loves it,” Clark said. “For families, it’s something you can all do together. And you make memories together.”
‘A LOT OF DISAPPOINTED PEOPLE’
About two weeks ago, Rick Wyffels made this season’s closure official: He put up a sign in his front yard reading, “Closed 2018.”
He then reached out to members of the local media to spread the word.
“If I didn’t let you all know, people would drive here and see the gate closed,” Wyffels said. “And they wouldn’t just be sad we are closed, but they’d also be upset they came all the way out here for no reason.”
Wyffels said he tried to warn some customers last year, the tree farm’s 20th season, about the possibility of being closed.
“I feel bad for our customers; we have a lot of loyal ones,” Wyffels said. “We’re going to have a lot of disappointed people.”
Rick and Kathy Wyffels are disappointed too. Closing brings a big change to their own longtime holiday routine.
“I actually don’t know what I’m going to do the day after Thanksgiving,” Kathy Wyffels, who is 65, said. “Maybe go Christmas shopping?”
The retired schoolteachers planted their first trees, 3,000 of them, in 1993 back when “we knew nothing about Christmas trees,” Rick Wyffels said. They thought selling the trees would help put their three kids through college, and it did.
They didn’t quite expect the trees would require almost year-round care.
“But it grows on you,” Wyffels said. “It’s a lot of fun. It keeps you outside and active.”
His wife will still make and sell homemade wreaths and other decorations this season, she said, because “people depend on those things.”
Still, the choice to close down tree sales was not one the Wyffels made easily.
“We’re sorry. We feel bad for the people who have come all these years,” Kathy Wyffels said. “It’s just a great family tradition, and there aren’t many of those anymore.”