John Russell, 57, walked from his boyhood home, painted red like a barn, and made his way out among the family farm’s 10,000 live Christmas trees.
The date was just over a week before Christmas. A chill wind swept through the green boughs of white pines, with their downy needles, and grove upon grove of Canaan and concolor firs, of white spruce, Norway and Black Hills spruce, all standing at attention in their flared winter coats. Some trees, of an age between seedling and sapling, stood only a few feet high, years too young to become part of Christmas memories. Thousands of others, at 6, 8, 10 and even 15 feet tall, were ready for homes. Some, decades old, reached 40 feet toward a rich, blue sky.
“All his life, he loved having people come out,” Russell said of Cedar Valley Forest, the Christmas tree farm along 83rd Street in De Soto, thought to be the oldest in the Kansas City area.
“He” was his father, Jack Russell, who, until his death in January 2013, days before he turned 91, had worked more than 60 years to grow and shear and shape the Christmas trees on 20 or so acres of his 80-acre farm. The son last year planted 700 seedlings to keep the tradition going after his father’s death, but this year, with Russell and his sister having put the rolling acreage up for sale, Cedar Valley did not open for the first time since its first tree sale in 1960.
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“It was his place. It was his legacy,” Russell said. “I’m sad to see it not carry on, for sure.”
Christmas is a holiday marked by joy and nostalgia. This season, both emotions are being amply reflected among the area owners of Christmas tree farms. For 11 months each year through Thanksgiving weekend, tree farm owners toil to raise the Christmas evergreens that fall to bow saws or chain saws over a harvest time of two or, at best, three weekends.
Christmas tree farmers feel jolly as elves this year because of a stupendous sales season.
“Opening weekend, from Green Friday,” as Butch Augspurg likes to call the Black Friday after Thanksgiving, “we had the best sales weekend we ever had. And it rained two out of the three days.”
Augspurg, 71, is president of the Missouri Christmas Tree Association, with 36 members statewide. Selling trees out of the Branch Ranch, a Christmas tree farm west of Hannibal, since 1997, he credits growing environmentalism for the boom in business, along with what he sees as a greater desire this year among young families to form holiday traditions.
“We’ve had more interest from folks wanting to get out of the artificial tree business,” he said. “… People want to get back to things closer to their childhood. People can’t tell it’s a Christmas unless they can smell the tree.”
Brian Bierman, the 41-year-old owner of Bierman’s Christmas Tree Farm, allows 500 of his 8,500 trees to be cut each year at his farm at 2826 S. 63rd St. in Kansas City, Kan. That happened so quickly this year, he shut down for the season early, as many area tree farms have done.
“Actually, it’s kind of crazy,” Bierman said. “In recent years, real trees have made a kind of a comeback.”
In New York, the financial firm Evercore ISI has each year since 2003 surveyed Christmas tree growing associations as an indicator of the strength of holiday shopping. This year, the group found that in the shopping week that included Black Friday, sales of real trees were up 10 percent from last year. The second-week numbers were up 12 percent.
“We just closed up on Saturday. We had record sales on tree accessories,” said Eldon Clawson, president of the Kansas Christmas Tree Growers Association and owner of Country Christmas Trees in Wakarusa.
Augspurg, president of the Missouri growers, senses that the desire for real Christmas trees has expanded, so new farmers are coming on board. Christmas trees can be grown on rolling or hilly ground or small patches of land not suitable for other farming, thus bringing in extra income, he said. It only takes an acre to grow 800 to 1,000 trees.
The Missouri Christmas Tree Association recently added seven members, individuals who indicated they plan to start new farms or already have. It takes about a decade before a tree, planted as a seedling, is tall enough to be cut and taken home at Christmastime.
Troy Bollinger, who plans to retire soon as the assistant superintendent of public schools in the Central R-3 School District, about an hour south of St. Louis, already has planted 1,000 trees on two of his 32 acres.
“Adding 600 to 1,000 trees a year,” he said.
The hope is to grow them tall enough, adding more each year, to begin selling by Christmas 2019. For Bollinger, 52, selling trees isn’t about the added income. It’s about faith, bringing folks out to the Christmas tree farm as a way to witness.
“Everything I do would be to the glory of God,” Bollinger said of what he will call Bollinger Farm. “Our theme is ‘Keeping the Christ in Christmas.’ ”
Christmas tree growers in the Kansas City area point to the closing of Russell’s Cedar Valley Forest as prompting the boost in their own business. For decades, it was an institution.
“This was a booming farm in the ’70s,” Russell recalled as he sat at the kitchen table of the home where he grew up with his younger sister, Patty, and his mom and dad. “We sold 2,000 trees a year and had 18,000 trees in the ground.”
People drove for miles, coming along 83rd Street, which was then among the main routes between Kansas City and Lawrence and the University of Kansas. One day in the 1970s, Russell recalled, a group of students drove to the farm in a Corvette.
“When we put that tree on top of the Corvette, you couldn’t even see the Corvette,” Russell said. “It looked like a tree going down the street.”
Patty Russell, now 55 and living in Denver, talked of the pond on the farm and how and she and her brother would saw off a wood round from the trunk of a Christmas tree and use it as a hockey puck as they slid along the ice in their rubber boots.
“It was the best place to grow up ever. I wouldn’t be who I am if I hadn’t grown up on the farm,” Patty Russell said by telephone. “We sold like 4,000 trees one season. This was, again, when no one else had a Christmas tree farm.”
John Russell talked about the beauty of the place in the winter, with thousands of Christmas trees laden with snow, or their branches shimmering with ice.
“The country is beautiful in the snow,” he said. “Snow hanging from the trees, the creek.”
When Jack Russell planted his first Christmas tree in the 1950s, his son said, the idea originally was not to start a farm. Jack Russell had been a mechanical engineer who attended the Georgia Institute of Technology near the start of World War II. His own father ran Russell Steel Products in Kansas City. When his father died, Jack Russell left college to come back to Kansas City to run the business.
Jack Russell met his wife, Virginia, and, in fact, would later plant Virginia pines on the land in her name. The couple married. She had money and paid for much of the farm as a place to raise their family.
Finding a decent Christmas tree had long vexed Jack Russell.
“He was always complaining that he would go out and look for trees and there would be a hole in one side, or there wasn’t a branch where it needed to be,” John Russell said. “He would sometimes buy another tree and take the branches out of one and put them in the other to make a good tree himself, just to get the right tree.”
Being the engineer he was, he figured he could make a better tree. He began planting trees each year by the hundreds, waiting an average of seven years before they were tall enough to be sold. The trees brought an added income, but rarely even now do Christmas tree farms tend to be the primary income for those who operate them.
Phil and Judy Wegman, owners of Midland Holiday Pines in Shawnee, both come from farm families. But Judy Wegman works mainly as a registered dietitian, and Phil Wegman’s prime job is as an educator at Johnson County Community College.
They started growing Christmas trees in 1995 at 18541 Midland Drive and have been selling since 2002. Growing trees is time-consuming and arduous.
“There’s lot of work to do to raise Christmas trees,” Patty Russell said. “It’s not just plant them and watch them grow.”
Phil Wegman said, “I’ll take you through the cycle.”
January and February are for cutting stumps and replanting. April, May and June: mowing acres of grass around the trees each weekend. At the end of June comes shearing and shaping the trees so they grow straight and conical.
“Every tree, every tree, even the small ones,” Wegman said. “If you don’t do some work on the small ones, they might grow to be big, fat trees, more like a bush and not like a nice Christmas tree.”
Trees need to be watered. Some farms have irrigation systems, others don’t.
“In a bad year, you could lose 50 to 60 percent without irrigation,” he said.
Even in a regular year, he said, as many as 20 percent of newly planted trees might die, necessitating even more planting.
“I plant in the spring and replant in the fall,” Wegman said. “All through this time you’re mowing. Then, pretty soon, you’re getting into planning your season, making sure you have all the equipment working, making sure you have insurance lined up, making sure your saws are in order, setting up show, getting out all the banners.
“Then the season begins right after Thanksgiving, Then it is pandemonium. Everyone comes at the same time. It’s a harvest that basically comes all at once.”
While the number of Christmas tree farms in Missouri is rising slightly, in Kansas the number is dropping. The state association counts about 30 active members now and over the last decade, compared with more than 40 in decades past. Farm owners grow old. Their children, Clawson said, rarely want to take over land that’s either hard to work or sometimes is sold off for new houses and other development.
“We like to kid about the fact that the younger people don’t want to work as hard as we do,” Clawson said. “Maybe they’re just smarter.”
How much might the Russell family’s 80 acres bring?
Patty and John Russell estimate that it could go for somewhere between $1 million and $1.6 million. Patty Russell tends to think the land will bring less than the higher amount her brother estimates.
The way the ownership of the land is split — with about half the acres belonging to the estate of their late father and mother and the other half belonging to the estate of just their mother — there is some debate among brother and sister as to how best to sell it, whether that is in pieces or as a whole.
What both agree is that, unless someone wants to buy the land as a Christmas tree farm — and they’ve gotten a few soft inquiries along those lines — the days of hundreds if not thousands of trees going from their home to others’ homes is over.
“Even though this place is for sale,” John Russell said, “I still don’t feel like I’ll ever leave, which is weird. People come to look at it, and it’s like, I’m still here. I’ve been here for three years since my dad died and everything.”
This year, for the first year, no new Christmas trees were planted on the farm. Perhaps paradoxically, Russell didn’t plan on putting up one inside the family home. Or maybe that makes sense, as on Christmas morning, like every morning, some 10,000 greet him outside his door.