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A holiday tradition, Schmitt Tree Farm Santa’s Forest, is coming to an end

Updated: 2013-12-06T22:31:45Z

By JOYCE SMITH

The Kansas City Star

Schmitt Tree Farm Santa’s Forest has been selling Christmas trees for more than five decades. The memories and traditions are free.

But after 52 years of seasonal business, Schmitt’s plans to close this weekend.

“We are choosing to retire for reasons that are only important to us,” said Sally Schmitt, daughter-in-law of the tree farm’s founder.

That news saddened customers who filled the farm’s parking lot last Saturday in Holt, Mo. — Schmitt trees tied on top of vans, pulled on trailers or precariously sticking out of car trunks.

“I love this place. I’ve been coming since I was born,” said Andrea Kreutzjans, 16, of Kearney.

She had already planned to carry on the family tradition with her children.

With artificial trees becoming much more popular, it’s likely to become increasingly harder for Christmas tree farms to thrive, let alone reach the half century milestone like the Schmitt Tree Farm.

According to the National Christmas Tree Association, Americans purchased 24.5 million farm-grown Christmas trees in 2012, down from 30.8 million in 2011.

Still, consumers were willing to shell out more for their trees — $41.30 on average in 2012, compared with $34.87 in 2011. That made for sales of $1.01 billion in 2012, compared with $1.08 billion in 2011.

It’s hard to pin down the number of Christmas tree farms still operating in Missouri and Kansas. The latest statistics from the national association are from 2007. At that time, there were 131 operations in Missouri, down from 196 in 2002. Kansas had 67 operations in 2007, down from 102 in 2002.

Rick Dungey, spokesman for the association in Chesterfield, Mo., said it is an interesting time to be in the industry, with some consolidation and reduction of total farms growing trees but still strong consumer demand.

“There will always be strong demand for the on-farm, cut-your-own-tree experience. That’s an important tradition for many families,” Dungey said. “But there are also many consumers who would buy a farm-grown real tree each year if offered more choices in trees and more choices in ways to buy one, get it home, get it set up and get it recycled after Christmas.”

The tree tradition

After 17 years of picking up the family Christmas tree at Schmitt, Don Whattoff would surely have the hang of it by now.

In years past, he would just toss the tree in the back of his pickup truck. This year he tied two trees on top of the family van, then worried that he might be having a “Griswold” moment, much like Chevy Chase’s bumbling ways in National Lampoon’s “Christmas Vacation,” in front of his wife, daughter and three granddaughters.

Customers cherish photos taken at the annual tree shopping outing, marking their children’s growth from strollers to toddler snowsuits to the tween and teen years. They have seen the same Santa for 14 years.

The Cordero family of Liberty talks about Santa’s big blue eyes — or are they green? — as they pile onto hay bales in the back of a wagon to head up the hill. That’s where they will pick out a tree in a democratic vote.

“It has to be perfect. Not too big, not too small, not too fat, not too skinny, not too branchy,” said Olivia Cordero, 8.

But for sister Bella, 11, the right tree is more than superficial. She waits for a tree that “speaks” to her.

Sally Schmitt recalls a much more contentious selection. The husband covered the top of his van with a tree that was 10 feet tall and nearly as wide, leaving his wife fuming.

“She said she had never been so close to divorce in her life. That she would have to do all the cleanup,” said Schmitt while rapidly pruning garland to be used for centerpieces.

Ties to the community

Louis W. Schmitt and his three sons — Lynn, Myron, and Louis Edward — started the Schmitt Christmas tree farm in 1961 in the Liberty area. They added their current location in 1979, just west of Interstate 35, down a winding gravel road about three miles.

Once they had as many as 100,000 trees, or about 1,200 to an acre. Now they have about half as many. Lynn planted 2,000 seedlings two years ago and then lost most to weather. He tried again with 2,000 more this spring.

The family saw an influx of competition in the early 1980s.

“They thought it was a gold mine, but gold has to be mined,” said Sally Schmitt. “Most of them aren’t here anymore.”

The Schmitt family members all held other jobs. Lynn was a dentist, Myron was a fire prevention officer, Louis Edward worked for the Missouri Public Service Commission and Sally was an occupational therapist. Lynn and Sally’s daughter, Karla Bolles, is a physical therapist.

Then they spend the year planting and pruning and mowing before the selling season starts the day after Thanksgiving.

Bolles began passing out peppermint candy with Santa when she was 5 or 6. Later she hauled trees and worked in the sweet shop as a cashier, and now she makes centerpieces and wreaths.

A large wreath with red velvet poinsettias was recently being readied for the Missouri Governor’s Mansion, and a 12-foot tree was set to be presented to the governor at the Capitol on Friday. In 1994, an 181/2-foot Schmitt tree decorated the Blue Room of the White House.

But Bolles’ best memory of growing up on a Christmas tree farm?

“Meeting so many different people and being part of their traditions,” Bolles said. “This is our tie to the community.”

To reach Joyce Smith, call 816-234-4692 or send email to jsmith@kcstar.com. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter at JoyceKC.

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