Television viewers who got an early jump on their holiday viewing this past weekend might have noticed a significant UConn presence in the Hallmark Channel movie “You, Me and the Christmas Trees”, as it made its premiere.
Set in Avon but actually filmed in Vancouver, B.C., the movie tells the story of Olivia Arden, an expert on evergreens who agrees to help Jack Connor, a fourth-generation Christmas tree farmer whose trees have had a mysterious illness befall them, causing them to die out and threatening the family business.
Of course there is a happy ending, and in Hallmark Channel style, a romance develops between Jack and Olivia, played by Danica McKellar of “The Wonder Years” and various math books fame.
The UConn connection started when the movie’s screenwriter, Julie Sherman Wolfe, needed some expert advice about Christmas tree growing and potential problems in the world of evergreens. Sherman Wolfe, a California native who now lives in Avon, reached out to UConn’s College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources and was put in touch with Mark Brand, a long-time professor of horticulture and plant breeding.
Part of Brand’s responsibilities over the years has been serving as editor of the Southern New England Christmas Tree Growers Manual and working with Christmas tree growers in the state as part of UConn Extension.
“I tried really hard to get the science right, and that’s what Professor Brand tried to help me with,” says Sherman Wolfe. “But, sometimes I would hear back from the network telling me that it was way too complicated, and to tone it down.”
One person who was very interested in the science was McKellar herself. “Danica really got into it and would call me and ask me why certain things were happening in the morning, when they would normally happen in the evening,” says Sherman Wolfe. “But when the next scene is in the afternoon, sometimes things have to happen in the morning that normally wouldn’t. It’s like when a doctor watches a medical show and goes crazy with what happens.”
Brand and Sherman Wolfe talked in March 2021 as the script was being written and developed.
“She has scenarios in her head that she ran by me,” says Brand. “Would it be reasonable for a UConn Extension person to come and fix issues with Christmas tree growers? Could you save trees in this timeframe? She didn’t want ideas to be ridiculous and have people laugh if they decided to go that way.”
As a result of the conversation with Brand and with the movie being set in Avon, McKellar’s role was written to be a UConn Extension director. UConn Director of Strategic Partnerships and Business Development Kyle Muncy provided the movie’s producers with UConn apparel and merchandise to be used in the movie.
McKellar is seen wearing a UConn hoodie in parts of the movie, in addition to a UConn-logoed lab coat. She has UConn diplomas on her office wall in “Storrs” along with a mock campus sign. There are also a lot of “UConn” references in the script, in addition to Avon and the Merritt Parkway.
In real life, UConn Extension has more than 100 years of experience strengthening communities in Connecticut and beyond. UConn educators work with local farmers and everyday people on items such as agriculture and food, health, landscaping, and climate resilience.
“The Extension does a lot of things behind the scenes, and often doesn’t get recognized for all of the positive things it does for various industries and other groups in the state,” says Brand. “I was happy they used a UConn Extension person who helped out a desperate agricultural producer. My guess is the general public has no idea this goes on regularly.”
As for Brand personally, of course, he and he family have a live tree in their home each year, usually in the six-to-eight-foot range. He anticipates a busy season for Christmas tree growers in 2021.
“It’s been a pretty good growing season for the most part, and the extra rain that we have had can help the trees put on more growth,” says Brand. “I actually think there is likely to be a significant shortage of live trees because of increased demand. With COVID, people are attracted to cut-your-own operations as a family event. I would tell people to get out there early to tag their tree.”