It almost seemed like the 60 Christmas tree growers were elves in Santa’s workshop, as they excitedly gathered at an early June workshop of their own in Kansas, to strategize for the 2013 holiday season.
“We’ve been in business for 30 years, and we always learn something at our meetings,” said Karen Bowen, who, along with her husband, Jim, own Bowen’s Christmas Tree Farm in Pittsburg, Kan., and attended the summer meeting of the Kansas Christmas Tree Growers Association. “We also want to get supplies here, like wreath rings.”
Five dozen Christmas tree growers drove from nearly every end of Kansas to converge at the day-long workshop on June 1 at Kasl’s Christmas Tree Farm in Belleville, Kan.
Farming Christmas trees is full-time for most of the growers, including the Bowens, who sell about 500 to 600 Scotch Pine and Austrian Pine trees each holiday season.
“We’ve had so many people buy trees, and now, with two years of drought, well, we’ve just not had a lot of growth on our trees,” shared Karen Bowen.
Her husband detailed the drought’s impact.
“Normally, we have a 12 inch tree growth per year, but in the past two dry years, we’ve only seen four to six inches of growth,” he said. “We had a lot of competition over the border in Missouri, but they went out of business.”
Christmas tree growers are uniquely and occupationally spirited; anticipating each approaching holiday season with a perspective similar to Santa himself.
“It’s nice to see everyone here. A lot of people wanted to see how we make the wreaths,” relayed Tyler Kasl, who just turned 18 and graduated from Republic County High School in Belleville in May, and has been iron support for his grandfather, Mike Kasl, owner of Kasl Christmas Tree Farm.
Tyler contributes hours and eagerly helps year round at the tree farm.
Tyler said he was thrilled he had the opportunity to accompany his granddad to the Kansas Governor’s mansion for the past several years, to deliver a home-grown, hand-crafted Christmas wreath, as well as making another delivery at the state capital.
Tyler joined his dad, Scott Kasl, and granddad outside the Kasl Farm for a demonstration of their brand new mist-blower.
“We’ll use this to spray pesticide, since the European Sawfly began showing, and I expect that Pine Tip Moth will probably show up soon too,” said Mike, who sprays yearly.
A highlight of the summer meeting, was the crowd’s fascination with watching their host demonstrate wreath-making.
“I expect to make about 2,000 wreaths this year,” Mike told the crowd, while reaching for boughs of Christmas trees grown right outside in his five-acre backyard.
“We designed this foot pedal before I had knee surgery, when it was difficult to stand so long,” shared the older Kasl, who is a twice past-president of the Kansas Christmas Tree Growers Association, and has been on the board of trustees for over a decade.
To assemble a massive array of wreaths, Kasl receives assistance from his own elves, of sorts; including his wife, Carolyn, son, Scott, and his wife, Laurie, and Tyler.
Kasl excitedly opened a side door to his recently-constructed 50-foot by 50-foot warehouse, pointing to the north.
“Look at that shipment of wreath rings,” exclaimed Kasl, his blue eyes twinkling. “They just arrived yesterday.”
He also introduced his favorite heart-shaped Christmas tree wreath to his fellow growers, noting that, although the wreath began as two candy cane shapes, heart-shaped forms are available.
Other favorite Christmas wreath adornments are the long-time, bright red ribbon, and now, almost equally requested is a deep, rich maroon-color ribbon.
“Another popular embellishment is netting. People like it. It’s contemporary,” said Kasl.
As the five dozen Christmas tree growers enthusiastically shared tips, the number one topic was moisture preservation.
“Irrigate and mulch heavily,” advised Eric Tucker, of The Green Works in Cowden, Ill. “You can also use chips and hay. If you keep your farms clean, you won’t have as much stress.
“But be careful not to put pine around, in case it has a disease. Also, walnut chips will kill your pine trees.”
“Well, I use mulch, but you can only do that on a few hundred trees,” shared Bill Bryant, who owns Bird’s Nest Tree Farm in Washington, Kan. “But when the heat and wind came last summer, I decided that it’s better to have a few weeds around the trees. “Sometimes weeds can be your friend, and I discovered that the ones that I mowed, had dried-out the soil.”
“Put a protectant spray on your trees,” suggested Richard Rees of Pine-Apple Farm in Grantville, Kan. “It just makes everything look more appealing.”
Another Christmas tree grower shared her tip of using four to six layers of newspapers with chips on the top to hold in moisture.
Retaining moisture was also the key topic of an agriculture specialist’s presentation at the meeting, who told the growers that 30 percent of a crop water budget is evaporation.
“But if you start protecting soil with crop residue or mulch around your trees, you suppress the evaporation component by half of that 30 percent,” advised Dan Rogers, professor and agricultural engineer with Kansas State University’s Research and Extension District. “Mulch does two things; it suppresses soil water evaporation, and suppresses competing weeds that would otherwise use water which the tree needs.”
The rule of thumb for tree water use, Rogers said, is to use 10 gallons per week/ per inch of trunk diameter, or monitor the soil with a simple soil probe.
“But be sure to water a couple of times per week, instead of doing it all at once,” added Rogers.
Then, Rogers delivered an extensive presentation on the benefits of a Subsurface Drip Irrigation System.
“A drip irrigation system will help get your trees established, because you don’t need a high amount of pressure,” said Rogers. The SDI is a low-pressure irrigation system, which uses polyethylene drip lines that are permanently buried below the soil surface. Through the use of built-in emitters; which are specific small openings, water can drip to the surrounding soil and directly into the crops root ozone.
Through its literature, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln recommends drip irrigation for irrigating windbreaks — a shelter belt made up of one or more rows of trees or shrubs offering shelter from the wind and prevention of soil erosion.
UNL states that drip irrigation helps reduce soil evaporation; requiring less water.
With interest in Christmas trees throughout the U.S., a member of the National Christmas Tree Association also joined the Kansas meeting.
National Board member Harry Peckham notes, the national organization donates 18,000 Christmas trees to military families on 65 bases in 28 states.
“The ‘Christmas Spirit Foundation’ provides the ‘Trees For Troops,’ courtesy of Christmas tree growers across the country,” said Peckham, who farms seven acres of Scotch Pine Christmas trees in Rantoul, Kan., near Kansas City. He sold 250 trees last year, which he acknowledges was ‘down a bit.’
“If we have a year like last year, I’ll start using a drip irrigation system,” he added. “Usually, I carry water in a bucket.”
Although it’s only June, Christmas is a year-round ‘season’ for the merry growers.
“Christmas trees are full-time for us,” said Karen Bowen. “We do six to eight sprays per season, plus mowing. We’re always doing something for the trees.” ❖