When Gary Riessen purchased his 300-acre plot of land in Montrose in 1995, it was a barren piece of desert. A decade later, Riessen had sowed the seeds of what would become one of Colorado’s most prolific Christmas tree farms.
According to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau survey, Montrose County leads the state in Christmas tree cultivation, harvesting 6,000 holiday evergreens in 2017, the most recent data available. Most of that is attributable to Riessen’s Covered Bridge Ranch, which opens every winter and invites locals to cut down their own trees.
Starting Nov. 25, the ranch celebrates the season with attractions like wreath decorating, hot chocolate and marshmallow roasting. The main draw, however, is finding a holiday centerpiece to take home.
Wagons shuttle visitors through about 100 acres of Covered Bridge Ranch, where they can explore the farm much like the woods and cut down their own trees. Wagons return to pick people up and help them transport their choice evergreens to their cars.
“People like it because it’s super convenient, especially with kids,” said Natalie Riessen, Gary’s daughter and business partner. “There are fires going. We have a wreath barn. We have a gift shop, so there are places people can go inside.”
Gary began growing trees about 50 years ago, when he was hired by a farm in Greenville, Mich., that specialized in wholesale holiday evergreens. Some of his biggest clients were City Market and Safeway, and he often traveled to Colorado’s Western Slope to sell trees there. He also developed an affinity for Colorado living after stints in Delta and Alamosa.
In 2012, Natalie joined the family business after two decades working in the finance industry in New York City. Gary originally planned to slow down as he reached the late stages of his career, but Covered Bridge Ranch has proved increasingly popular among locals looking for the cut-your-own experience without having to leave town.
“I always wanted to do it on a one-to-one basis with people coming out and enjoying it and seeing their family enjoy the whole season and the experience of looking for their tree,” Gary said. “It’s a unique way to continue our lifestyle in growing.”
While Covered Bridge Ranch’s primary business is selling evergreens and aspens to nurseries, the farm grows nine species that the public can choose from, including varieties of spruce, pine and fir. Colorado blue spruce tends to be the most popular buy, while firs attract the high-end customers, Natalie said. The company also sells trees reaching 30 feet to mountain towns like Mountain Village (Telluride) and Keystone for their displays.
“In Michigan, we could grow Frasier fir. It’s one of the most popular high-end Christmas trees, but you can’t grow it here. We tried it,” Natalie said. “It needs a lot more humidity, a lot more moisture.”
The species that Covered Bridge sells that looks most similar is the big and bushy Canaan fir. Natalie recommends folks who are looking for a similar, but more premium product go with the Concolor fir, also known as a white fir, which is native to the mountain west, including parts of Colorado.
“Once people try the Concolor fir they absolutely love it,” Natalie said. “It’s got these long needles. It’s also got a very strong aroma; you know that Christmas smell when you come into a house.”
The Riessens restrict sales to trees 6 feet and taller, since it takes nearly a decade to grow that size. The farm continually transplants two-year-old seedlings and, on average, they grow a foot per year from there, Natalie said. A 7-foot tree will run you $110 to $115.
Prices have, on average, increased in recent years due to a shortage of trees and exceptional demand. According to Natalie, many farmers planted fewer Christmas trees in response to the Great Recession of 2008 while others decided to shut down entirely. The industry is now feeling the impact of having less supply to sell coupled with a spike in demand for real trees brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The years “2020 and ‘21 were pretty big for the Christmas tree industry because people were staying home and focusing on family,” Natalie said. “A lot more supply (went) off the market than normal.”
Still, Covered Bridge Ranch has thousands of mature trees to choose from, as well as some “Charlie Brown trees” that are offered at a discount. Unlike hunting for one in the national forests, you don’t need a permit and there’s no entry free required to join the festivities.
Stop by Covered Bridge Ranch Wednesdays through Sundays from Nov. 25 to Dec. 11 when the farm is open 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
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