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Wisconsin sisters turn Hallmark Christmas movie-inspired dream into reality with Inspiration Acres

Maura Keller for Progressive Dairy Published on 11 December 2021
Sisters Kara and Krista

For millions of people, the farm-based Christmas stories that grace the Hallmark channel each winter season are endearing and provide a simple, innocent vision of “farm life” during the holiday season.

Sisters Kara Kasten-Olson and Krista Peterson, who grew up on a small family farm with 65 acres, 20 miles north of Milwaukee in Richfield, Wisconsin, have captured that Hallmark feeling at their pop-up Christmas tree lot and gift market, Inspiration Acres.

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Growing up together, the sisters raised Brown Swiss and were active in 4-H and with the Junior Brown Swiss Association. When it was time to leave the farm and head to college, Peterson received a bachelor’s degree from University of Wisconsin – River Falls in ag marketing communications and ag business. And Kasten-Olson received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin – Madison in dairy science and life science communications.

Kasten-Olson currently is an agriculture program supervisor at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture within the Division of Ag Development where she oversees a team of ag development specialists. She and her family also farm and direct market beef, pork, chicken and eggs under the “Little Farmer Meats” brand name.

For the past eight years, Peterson’s career has taken her outside the agriculture industry as the director of sales and distribution for Jewelers Mutual Insurance Group.

“We transitioned out of milking cows in 2001 after a farming accident. For many years, our parents continued to raise crops and steers,” Peterson says. “In 2015, after the unexpected passing of our dad, we knew in our hearts we wanted to keep the farm active and started to brainstorm ideas of what we could transform it into.”

Over the years, the sisters talked about venturing into agritourism, aquaculture, dairy goats, hops and grapes, and much more. But one idea that always had a tendency to resurface was a Christmas tree farm.

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“Every year from October to January (July too; let’s not lie), we would be engrossed in Hallmark Christmas movies – and as we watched, we would brainstorm ideas of how we could create a real-life Hallmark Christmas experience on our farm,” Kasten-Olsen says.

Unfortunately, in 2018, the sisters received devastating news that their mom had cancer. She fought a courageous battle, but one year to the day of diagnosis on May 8, 2019, she passed away.

“People often say grief comes in waves and makes you do things you sometimes wouldn’t,” Peterson says. In this case, it created a sense of urgency and desire to take action. The fall after their mother passed, the sisters began researching how to start a tree farm.

Christmas trees

“But after a couple months of life happening and the overwhelming amount of work and resources needed to update the farm, we put it on the back burner,” Peterson says. Fast-forward to early fall 2020 and the Christmas tree idea was back, and while Peterson had talked about this dream for so many years on-and-off, it was Kasten-Olson who pulled the trigger and proposed trying a pop-up gift market and tree lot at a local shopping center to see if investing to transform the farm is something they want to undertake.

So in October 2020, the siblings embraced the idea of launching their first gift market and tree lot. But first, they needed to come up with a name. Their mother inspired both sisters throughout their lives to be strong, independent, hardworking and to go after their dreams.

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“Remembering that made it a no-brainer that ‘Inspiration Acres’ became the name,” Kasten-Olson says. “This is about creating a place where people can make memories, feel inspired to celebrate the joy of the season and gives us a way to help others in need.”

Today, the pop-up Christmas tree lot and gift market are located in Slinger, Wisconsin. They utilize an indoor retail strip mall area for the gift market, family activities and professional photographer studio. The trees are displayed outside where families can also hop in a sleigh for a great photo op.

The next generation of Inspiration Acres

“We feature a wide variety of local crafts and goods from nearly 25 different vendors,” Peterson says. Items include handmade ornaments, blankets, Christmas decorations, towels, candles, soaps, homemade brittle, glassware, crocheted items, jewelry, honey, local cheese, meat gift boxes and much more. The sisters make and sell decorated wreaths, porch pots and other outdoor evergreen decor.

“We are lucky enough to partner with a third-generation local tree grower that recently transitioned away from retail tree sales,” Kasten-Olson says. “We are grateful for her guidance and support as we begin our new endeavor. We select, cut and bale trees from their farm and then haul them to our retail lot area. Over the next year, we hope to get hands-on experience with planting, shearing, disease management, coning and all other aspects of growing trees.”

Challenges aplenty

Embarking on a new agricultural adventure, especially a niche market like Christmas trees, comes with its fair share of challenges. “First, we decided to open the gift market and tree lot in 2020. We had to deal with the many unknowns of COVID, and it limited some of the activities we wanted to offer in our first year,” Peterson says.

Another ongoing challenge is: Both sisters work full-time jobs and have young children, so trying to balance their priorities and schedules can be challenging.

“We often discuss the many great ideas and projects we want to do for Inspiration Acres, but we have to be realistic about how much we can actually accomplish in the short season,” Peterson says.

One of the largest challenges the sisters face is eventually transforming their homestead dairy farm into a Christmas wonderland tree farm, open to the public.

“Right now, we are in the research and development phase of the necessary steps to create an on-farm experience,” Kasten-Olson says.

Thus far, the sisters’ marketing strategy has mainly been through social media and word-of-mouth advertising. This year, they will be participating in a local Christmas parade to help increase awareness.

“Our name is Inspiration Acres, and we selected that because our goal is to help families make memories and help people in need,” Kasten-Olson says. “Each year, we select a charity to donate a portion of the proceeds. We hope as we grow our contributions can become larger.”

And rather than purchase inventory from overseas vendors, they partner with local artisans and crafters to provide an opportunity to grow their business and encourage community members to shop local.

Decorated wreaths

“While Christmas means more than the gifts, we hope our market inspires meaningful and convenient gift giving for all ages,” Peterson says.

This year, the sisters are excited to offer an even larger variety of vendors and evergreen decor items. They will have a food truck, hot cocoa bar, professional photographer, kids’ craft corner, face painting and a Christmas movie area.

“Our eventual goal is to transition from a pop-up market to an ‘on-farm’ Christmas experience,” Peterson says. “Last year, we had great support from family and friends near and far. Many of our longtime dairy industry friends attended and have encouraged us throughout the process. We are so grateful for all [who] are embracing us on this journey to remember our parents and create a lasting legacy for our children.”  end mark

PHOTO 1: Wisconsin sisters Kara Kasten-Olson and Krista Peterson launched a pop-up Christmas tree and gift market in 2020.

PHOTO 2: Currently, the sisters select, cut and bale trees from a local tree grower and then haul the trees to the local retail lot area.

PHOTO 3: The next generation of Inspiration Acres – (left to right) Reid and Kayleigh Olson and Nora Peterson – enjoy helping with the festivities.

PHOTO 4: The sisters make and sell their own decorated wreaths as well as other outdoor evergreen décor. Photos provided by Kara Kasten-Olson.

Maura Keller is a freelance writer in Plymouth, Minnesota.

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