Dennis Duke secured a farm and began planting trees over half a century ago, prompting him to establish Hilltop Tree Farm in 1983. Hilltop specializes in all things related to trees and Christmas trees, including flocking, coloring, bailing, and more.
“I’ve always liked planting trees – it started when I was in 4H in school,” Duke said. “It’s been my part-time job until two years ago when I retired from my full-time position. It’s what I’ll be doing for the rest of my life.”
At 77, Duke has no intentions of slowing down.
“My first couple of years, I was painting 1000 trees – some of those are still here and are 40 feet tall,” he said. “Now, we’re planting between 400 and 500 a year.”
He initially launched a tree farm in 1957, south of Cracker Barrell on KY-431, but the clay soil created sustainability issues. Hilltop sits at 8023 Mt. Zion Church Road in Philpot with fertile soil and boasts several acres of varying tree options.
Duke said there’s been a reemergence of people buying real Christmas trees in recent years. He attributes that to several reasons.
“People are tired of plastic – it’s something you can’t recycle, it all goes to the landfill,” he said. “Real trees remove carbon monoxide from the air. They also convert carbon dioxide into oxygen and release it into the air for human consumption.”
Hilltop also partners with the Department of Forestry and the Department of Fish and Wildlife on sustainability programs. This includes placing recycled trees in lakes to protect small young fish and enhance the overall fish population.
Duke’s passion for trees extends well beyond Hilltop. He’s a member of the state Christmas Tree Grower Association and the Mid-America Christmas Tree Association, an alliance that spans 11 states.
His son and others will assist in planting trees on the weekends throughout the year. The entire Duke family comes together during the holiday season to meet the community’s demands.
Aside from standard Christmas trees, Hilltop offers maples, oaks, Frazier Furs, Green Giants, and more. They often partner with local nurseries for larger tree orders and wholesale opportunities.
“It’s not work when you’re doing what you love,” Duke said. “We’ve had some people buy trees from us for 20, 25, and 40 years. The community has always been supportive.”