Once a successful livestock and grain operation, Dave began to imagine a different future for the family farm when he took over as proprietor in 1984. Shortly after he married Barb in 1994, they planted their first Christmas trees in unused pasture and later started tapping 100 year old maples that grew in the east woods, creating delicious maple syrup.
“We sold our first trees about ten years ago,” says Dave. “The first few years, I knew everyone who came to the farm. This past year, we sold about a thousand trees. I still recognize about a quarter of the people. I always ask customers where they heard about us (we don't do a lot of advertising). When I started hearing, “I’ve been coming here for years,” that’s when it occurred to me. We’re a part of people’s traditions."
Cooks' Woods offers folks a simple experience: drive down Ebenezer Road to the gravel driveway. Take a saw and learn a little about the types of trees and where to find them. If you're in a hurry, select from a few pre-cut trees. But most enjoy the excitement of the search. Bring Dave and his team your tree, warm up in the barn where they hang the greenery for sale. Enjoy a free cup of hot chocolate while they shake and bale your tree for transport. Sorry, no credit cards accepted. "A few people each year aren't prepared for that, so I tell them to just mail me a check when they get home. Haven't lost money on a tree yet," says Dave.
"It’s a simple business. Not much else is these days."
Every employee, seasonal help aside from Dave and Barb, is given embroidered clothing. "It helps people identify the employees during our busy season and it connects us to the farm." They hire additional sales help for the busiest weekends, about four to six make greenery and during the summer, about two or three work in the fields. "We have about 40,000 trees, plant about 5,500 new transplants each spring and touch every one of them at least once during the growing season," he says.
"I get a lot of the same kids back for a few years, then their sisters and brothers, sometimes girlfriends or boyfriends join us.”
It’s the simplicity of the operation that makes Cooks’ Woods so appealing. The rustic barn, where sturdy, wooden benches welcome a respite. Comfortable enough for the snow pants wearing crowd. And a generous cup of hot chocolate you can sweeten yourself. An outing lasts as long as you want it to (and Wisconsin winters will allow).
As for Dave’s maple syrup business, he says it started out of pure luck. “I always say I’m fortunate the seeds landed in our east woods 100 or so years ago.” The syrup business bursts to life in the spring and ends just as quickly. During a consecutive stretch of nights when temperatures drop below freezing and days warm to 30s and 40s, the sap flows. But when it stops freezing and the trees start to break bud, collection halts. “It’s part of the trees waking up. Once the leaves bud, the sap changes flavor and it’s not suitable any longer.” Dave’s labyrinth of hoses nets over 5,000 gallons of sap, which translates to about 125 gallons of the purest, sweetest maple syrup, carefully bottled and labeled at the farm.
“This spring was brutal for our maple syrup business. The lack of freezing nights hurt us. But we still did well, just in less time. That’s the way of it. You’re only responding to nature, not controlling it.”
To learn more about Cooks' Woods, visit their website. Or take a drive to Ebenezer Road in Fennimore, Wisconsin. On any given day, you'll likely find Dave and Barb at work.