Pine Creek Farm makes tree shopping a family event

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN CYNTHIA MARTENS
Traditionally, the Christmas season radiates with the aromas of holiday feasts and baked goodies, the sounds of carolers singing songs of hope and joy, and the pungent-pine smell of a freshly cut decorated Christmas tree.

For many, the season wouldn’t be the same without a trip to a Christmas tree farm to cut down the perfect tree for the holidays.

In the Marion County area, the tree farm to visit is Pine Creek Farm, owned by Lloyd and Marlene Schroeder, both in their mid-70s. The farm is part of the couple’s 120-acre homestead, located one mile west and two miles south of Goessel.

“Kids come from town, living in tiny spaces, and they like to run around out here,” Marlene Schroeder said. “The first Saturday we were open this year, we had a couple with children, and they were here one to two hours just playing and going into the tree maze.”

The Schroeders offer more than just the opportunity to purchase a fresh tree, they also offer a Christmas-season experience and a playground of memories.

Located in Tree Lot IV, the Candy Cane Tree Maze is a series of paths designed by the couple’s son, affectionately known as Uncle Ja (pronounced Jay). Although he died two years ago, he left a legacy to visitors at his parent’s farm.

In 2000, he created a children’s highway of places to visit, questions to answer and the reward of a candy cane at the Trim-A-Tree Shop located in an addition on the Schroeder’s home.

The couple once operated a poultry farm next to their home and barn dating back to 1890.

But mindful of the pending cost of putting four children through college and changes in the poultry industry, they left the farming to renters and investigated starting a tree farm on the grounds once grazed by cattle.

In 1969, while visiting the Marion County Extension Office, the couple discovered a brochure on growing Christmas trees in Kansas. Hesitant at first to try this new venture, they discussed it for about a year until they planted their first set of trees.

“We put out 1,000 trees, and every one died because we have hot summers in Kansas,” Schroeder said.

The next stop was the extension service in Hutchinson. An agent there told the couple to contact the Kansas Christmas Tree Growers Association Inc. to learn how to succeed in the business.

“So in 1970, we tried again and planted 3,000 trees, and half of them lived,” Schroeder said. “We were told in Kansas if you have 70 percent livability, you’re doing quite well, because Kansas is a hot state in the summer and has a lot of wind.”

On the average in this area, it takes seven years to grow a five-foot pine tree. By 1976, the Schroeders had a decent crop of trees and began selling them to neighbors. The rest is Christmas tree-farm history.

They named their new business Pine Creek Farm, in reference to the pines they planted along Emmett Creek snaking through their property. Every year, new trees are planted on the 15 to 20 acres reserved for the pines.

“This year, we put out 2,500 trees, and we had very good livability,” Schroeder said.

For the first few years, new trees are watered with a drip-irrigation system connected to a well on the property.

In January, Lloyd pulls stumps and in the spring, he sprays the trees to prevent disease. Beginning in May, he and hired help shape the trees with a gas-powered shearing machine.

“Fifteen to 20 acres is a lot to mow all summer long,” Schroeder said. “So Lloyd keeps busy with that, too.”

Beginning Nov. 15 this year, visitors could cut down their trees during scheduled hours six days a week. For those who hold to the tradition of buying their trees on Christmas eve, the selling season ends Dec. 24 .

Following highway signs for Pine Creek Farm, tree hunters by the carload eventually find themselves driving up a gravel road to the couple’s home.

The Schroeders hire college students to help with tree maintenance during the summer. From surrounding-area colleges, a group of students also works part-time, November through December. During peak times, they greet and guide customers, shake out and load trees and help where needed.

First stop for visitors is the Trim-A-Tree Shop to pick up a saw and a pamphlet with a map of lots one through four located on the property. Those who have difficulty cutting a tree will get help from the staff.

All trees range in prices from about $18 to $36.

The majority of trees on the farm are Scotch pines standing from 4 feet to 12 feet tall. But the farm also has some Austrian pines.

If looking for an unusual tree, visitors can purchase Frazer firs-freshly cut and trucked directly from Wisconsin.

“They’re a very fine layered tree,” Schroeder said. “We have people call all the time for these.”

A new patch of gravel covers roads winding through the property as visitors look for color-coded tags indicating the size and price of the conifers for sale.

“When a parent wants to pay a certain amount for a tree, they can tell their children to look for a colored tag,” Schroeder said.

In the past, the farm opened in October. This allowed early-bird tree hunters the opportunity to reserve a tree by tagging it and then coming back later in the season to cut it down. But the couple discontinued that offer this year.

“It became very complex, because there was a confusion with numbers,” Marlene said. “A little boy came in last year crying and said, ‘Somebody stole my tree.’ So we thought it was time to change.”

Leaving the tags on the trees they cut, visitors bring them back to the main area to have the dead needles shaken out before one of the students loads them in their vehicles.

But the memories do not end there. The next stop is back to the Trim-A-Tree shop-filled with the aroma of free hot coffee and cherry cider to warm young and old alike after their adventure in the pines.

“The idea is you must have something to offer the customers,” Schroeder said.

“That’s why we have the kids come in and pick something off the tree, like a candy cane, or have some cider-to make it a good experience.”

In addition to having a Christmas tree filled with a free candy cane for each child, the room contains holiday items for sale such as peppernuts, tree-watering systems, Christmas decorations, hand-made tree skirts and hand-made ornaments.

“In 1978, I started painting ornaments, and I do a different design every year,” Schroeder said. “This year I did Silent Night, and I dated it 2003. Some people collect them every year.”

The 2003 bulb-style ornament costs $2. And the hand-sewn tree skirts made by Schroeder-with a separate set of ornaments available for sale that match them-range in price from $17.50 to $25.

Wreaths, made from freshly cut pine boughs on the property, are for sale, too.

“We sell a large amount of wreaths,” Schroeder said. “A lady from Goessel comes out and makes those, and I put a bow, pine cones and poinsettias on them.”

In the adjacent 1890 barn, where a variety of the wreaths are displayed, sturdy Christmas-tree stands, made with steel supports, are available for sale in five different sizes.

“We carry tree stands that you don’t find on the market,” Schroeder said. “They were invented by a tree grower in Kansas. Quite a few churches come here and buy the large stands.”

The most popular size of tree cut on the farm is in the 5-foot to 6-foot range.

“People with tall ceilings will buy larger ones,” Schroeder said.

The busiest weekend of the season is right after Thanksgiving, as people prepare to focus on Christmas decorating and shopping.

The couple advertises in area papers and also sends out notices every year to about 1,850 people on their mailing list.

“People say they like the cards, because they know when we’re open,” Schroeder said. Returning customers would do well to heed the call to come to the farm.

“We take pictures every year,” Schroeder said about the customer photos displayed on a board in the shop. If you can identify yourself, you can have the picture. By the end of the season, this board is empty.”

By the end of the season, the Schroeders will probably sell at least 1,000 of the 1,200 trees tagged this year.

The popularity of cutting a fresh tree hasn’t waned in recent years.

“It’s the experience, the memories,” Schroeder said. “We found that two years ago, after 9/11, we weren’t sure what kind of year we would have. But it was the best year in 27 years. People came out with teenagers, families, more children than ever, just for the experience-just to be together.”

Pine Creek Farm is open Tuesday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday, 1 p.m. to 6 p.m.; and closed Monday. For more information, call 620-367-2606.

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