ST. JOHN - Jennifer Jones and John Edwards of Wellington, Texas drove to Delp Christmas Tree Farm to get their first fresh-cut Christmas tree. They meandered through the Douglas, Concolor and Canaan Firs looking for the perfect tree.
They are not the only ones who shop at this St. John’s legendary tree farm, the first Christmas tree farm in Kansas.
Delp Farm sits on 20 acres and contains more than 13,000 trees. Patrons drive out to the trees, pick one with a tag that tells them the variety and cost, cut the tree and haul it back for bagging.
“If they need help, we’re there to help them,” said Tony Delp.
Tony’s parents started the business 60 years ago. Tony, now in his 70s, worked with his brother during high school, sheering trees and weeding. His son Joel and wife Sarah are continuing the tradition.
“I see the grandparents come with their grandchildren. We enjoy seeing them year after year,” Tony said.
Types of Trees
Ardie Goering’s parents started Pine Creek Farm 40 years ago. She, like Tony, helped her parents run the business when she was younger. Ardie and her husband Wynn took over the McPherson County farm in 2013. They grow more than 6,000 Scotch and Austrian Pines on their 12 acres.
“It’s a special business,” Ardie said. “We’re not just selling trees; we’re selling an experience.”
Aside from Delp Christmas Tree Farm and Rocking M Farm in Junction City, most of the tree farms tend to grow at least two types of trees, usually some combination of Scotch, Austrian and Virginia Pines. Ardie said this is because of both the soil and the lack of enough rain. Several years ago, she started irrigating her young trees. The Delp’s have always irrigated.
Rocking M Farm, as well as Delp Christmas Tree Farm, grows Canaan and Douglas Firs, Eastern and Southwestern White Pines, and Scotch and Austrian Pines. Delp Farms also grows Concolor Firs. Almost all the farms in Kansas import Fraser Firs from colder parts of the country and Rocking M imports Balsam Firs as well. This year, the farms are ordering these pre-cut trees from Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina and Wisconsin. Country Christmas Trees in Wakarusa, just south of Topeka, ordered in Blue Spruce as well.
“Our soil is really sandy and we use irrigation,” Tony said. But, he added, “We’re patient.”
Tony said it takes about seven years for White, Southwestern, Austrian and Scotch Pines to mature. The Douglas and Canaan Firs take about eight years to reach at least six feet, and the Concolor Firs do not mature until they are in the ground for at least a decade. As far as fragrance goes, the Canaans, Concolors, Douglas and Frasers have that Christmas scent. And, Tony said, because the Douglas Fir, White, Scotch and Austrian Pines turn yellowish during the winter, tree farms everywhere must spray them with water-based paint.
For the Love of Trees
Tyler Kasl, 24, who helps run Kasl Christmas Tree Farm in Bellville in Republic County said he was at the farm from the time he could walk. For the past 40 years his family ran the farm. Customers can pick from the more than 2,000 trees on the 30-acre farm. Tyler, like many of the others, works full time in addition to running the tree farm. But he, like them, would never dream of giving it up.
“My great-grandfather Ben Kasl planted the first trees here. It’s in my blood,” he said. “The tradition and the smiles on people’s faces makes it worth it.”
In addition to growing the trees, Tyler and his family are busy making 1,500 wreaths by hand each year. Delp Farms also makes handmade snowflakes, cross and horse wreaths.
According to Tony, there were more than 150 Christmas tree farmers during the 1980s, but he said, they realized what hard work it was and closed down. The number has shrunk back down to less than 40.
New people continue to enter the business and join the Kansas Christmas Tree Growers Association. Shala and Kevan Steele own Milldam Christmas Tree Farm in Fredonia and Eunice and Kenton Nickel started Peaceful Pines in Marion County. Both farms planted trees one decade earlier and began selling last year. They both entered the business because they wanted to start an outdoor tradition with their families, as well as provide holiday memories for their customers.
“I love Christmas, and I wanted something outside of the office to do with my family,” Shala said. “We wanted to open this for our children and our customer’s children.”
Both the Steel’s and the Nickel’s hope their long-term investment pays off. Last year, both couples sold a little less than one hundred trees – as compared to the one thousand that Delp Christmas Tree Farm usually sells. The new farms hope to double their number this year. The Steele’s have more than one thousand trees to choose from.
“Last year, customers started sending us pictures – on email or Facebook,” Eunice said. “It was fun to continue to see how these trees were a part of their Christmas as they drove off the lot.”
Christmas Tree Farm Customs
Eunice carries on her great-grandfather’s Prussian Mennonite tradition of baking peppernuts – the tiny Christmas cookie. The other farms also offer some type of snack - homemade cookies, peanuts or candy canes. Most of the growers sell ornaments and wreaths and hand out apple cider or hot cocoa. Fireplaces, Christmas tunes and community comradery abound.
Bel Tree Farm in Salina, which began in 1965, offers horse-drawn hayrides. Country Christmas Trees also have alpacas to pet. Most of the farms sell stands as well. Pine Creek Farm sells Cedar Valley Tree Stands made in Louisburg. Also in Louisburg is the D & G Christmas Tree Farm.
In addition to the seven varieties of trees, the Delp’s offer painted or flocked trees. The white ones, which emulate a snow-covered tree, are the most popular. The other colors include red, lime-green, blue, charcoal gray and purple.
According to the National Christmas Tree Association, more than one million acres of Christmas trees are planted throughout the country, with 77 million trees planted each year. The top producing Christmas tree states are California, Oregon, Michigan, Washington and North Carolina.
The owner of Rocking M Farm, Rhonda Millard, said, “The whole experience of watching the parents and their children come out and pick that special tree is wonderful.”