By Matt Reese
Courtney Helt grew up on a small farm in Perry County and has always loved Christmas.
“When I was in high school, they started doing coal mining around the farm and eventually, my parents were forced to sell,” Helt said.
After high school and college, Helt built a successful career in the health care technology sales industry, travelling, and living, all over the country. No matter where she moved, though, she always had a special place in her heart for a midwestern Christmas on a small farm.
“I had lived out of state for several years, but I missed Ohio the whole time. I came back for Thanksgiving once to visit my family and when passing by this Christmas tree farm — Old Log House Plantation — we noticed there was a for sale sign, so I started looking into it a little bit more,” Helt said. “I had always wanted to come back to Ohio and this gave me the perfect opportunity to get back.”
She purchased the property that included 70-acres of trees, a home, and a noteworthy building behind the previous name of the farm, Old Log House Plantation. The first Christmas trees were planted on the farm in 1980 by the Holekamp family who transitioned the operation from crops and hogs. Soon after, the family disassembled a nearby barn that had been built in the 1830s and used the wood to build a charming log cabin on the farm that still serves as the seasonal gift shop.
The Holekamps later sold the operation to buyers who sold the farm to Helt in 2019.
Since then, the transition of a successful former San Diego businesswoman to Perry County Christmas tree farmer has been no small thing, but Helt has been able to breathe new life into the farm, while the farm has been a breath of fresh air for her. After finalizing the purchase, Helt took a year off of her day job to tend to her new farm, with the help of some friends and family.
“There was a lot to learn, but when I do something, I go all in. I did a lot of research before I decided to do this. I got here in April at planting season, but the farm had not ordered trees yet. I had 3-inch-tall seedlings and the grass was taller than the trees,” she said. “We got trees planted, but it was hard to know what to plant where. Then weed control was a challenge. There were some errors made the first year with that. The Ohio Department of Agriculture found issues with weevils and some bag worms and we have been addressing those. We had problems with root rot and over spraying and lost most of the 4,000 trees we planted. The root rot issues were the result of a rainy spring and summer. Now we make sure we are planting in a timely manner, though sometimes the weather does not work out. We also make sure that we have the proper equipment. We are planting around 4,000 trees a year over a couple of weekends. We mow a lot for weed control and my dad really helps with that. We had small tractors with brush hogs when we started. Now I only use zero turns between the trees. It is amazing how much quicker and better it works.”
Along with the tree fields and equipment upgrades, the farm in general needed some sprucing up.
“The farm was overgrown and it was hard for people to walk around because of brush everywhere, so we have really worked on that,” Helt said. “Each year the customers can see how we have cleaned it up. Now they tell me it looks like it did when Mr. Holekamp owned it, which is the biggest compliment.”
Another major learning curve was the annual shearing for the trees.
“I went to Ohio Christmas Tree Association meetings and saw everyone has a different way of doing it. I tried shearing trees with the long knives and would be exhausted after about 3 trees. My dad started helping and it wasn’t his favorite farm chore. Now I don’t ask anyone to help trim, as I don’t want to lose their help. I trim all the trees by myself,” Helt said. “I use a Tree Tech Beneke Rotary Trimmer and that has worked well.”
The first sales season was also a major challenge with long-term customers who had one set of expectations for their trip to the farm that differed in some ways from the new reality.
“It was a big challenge training customers to go to specific fields so I can make sure I have enough trees for the next couple of years. Some people did not like that. Some people would jump out of their trucks and grab their chain saws, but the farm’s insurance does not allow for that,” she said. “I had a vision of what I wanted this to be and some of the customer base was used to something different.”
Now in her fourth sales season as a Christmas tree farmer, Helt has been able to address many of the challenges, but she also has plans for the farm to further evolve.
“At first it was hard to know when to do what, but it has gotten easier every year. Now it is like a well-oiled machine. I was super excited the first year, but unfortunately, we were open way too many hours and it was a little daunting. I thought I had ruined Christmas for myself,” she said. “However, I’m in a much better place now. The farm brings so much more excitement to the holidays for me and we still have some time to do fun family holiday things as well. We have a soft start the weekend before Thanksgiving and then Thanksgiving weekend is always very busy. Then we’re open on weekends until Dec. 10 unless we sell out early. My Dad missed being on a farm and he has helped me a ton and I think he enjoys it. My Mom runs everything in terms of ringing up the trees and helping customers during the season. I love getting to work with my parents again. The guy I date, he helps along with his whole family. I try to hire the local FFA kids to help too from New Lexington, Sheridan and a few from Fairfield Union. On a busy day we’ll have 8 adults working here and 12 to 15 kids.”
Unique gift shop offerings and the homegrown greenery are sold on the farm.
“We take special orders for customers. We make all the roping here, some wreathes, grave blankets, and swags. I love making the greenery items,” Helt said. “I work all day at my job and then I come here and make greenery. It is a different kind of thinking. This is creative thinking. It is relaxing. I don’t have to think about anything else while I am doing it. I put on some Christmas music and it gets me in the holiday spirit. We do a private wreath decorating event for a group of people that have been back for several years. It’s a lot of fun and I look forward to that too.”
The gift shop in the cabin now contains unique and modern holiday offerings and is still a highlight of the farm. Right outside is a bonfire for smores.
“Everyone loves the gift shop. The old log cabin is still a staple of the farm. People love to come back and visit the shop. Even if they’re not there to buy something they want to walk through it just for nostalgic reasons,” she said.
Marketing for the farm is mostly social media and word of mouth.
“We have a lot of return customers and we appreciate that business. The community really likes to support local small businesses here. Many of the places I have lived were very transient. It was a pleasant surprise to come back to Ohio and see the support here,” Helt said. “The original tree farmer, Mr. Holekamp, still comes out to see me a couple of time a year. Those are usually a couple of the best days of the year.”
Moving forward, Helt has big plans for the farm’s future, but they will take some time. One example is an old restaurant on the farm in need of some significant upgrades. Helt has brought in food trucks for now, but one day would like to explore the possibility of re-opening new food options. In the meantime, Helt is enjoying the chance to watch her small farm, Ohio Christmas dreams come true.
“I love to see a family that gets their perfect tree,” she said. “We have several that come in from out of town and we have a lot of locals. One family comes from Hilliard every year. They have several daughters and they insist on getting a very large tree. They carry it back themselves and they come back singing a song — that’s one of the things I look forward to every year.”