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No holiday for tree farmers

Staff writer

Christmas tree farming is a niche industry in Kansas, but for second-generation tree farmer Ardie Goering it’s, in part, about continuing a legacy.

Her parents started the Pine Creek Farm in the 1970s, and she and her husband took over the business in 2007.

“It kind of gets in your blood,” she said. “You end up being very busy in November and December. It’s not like other people; our holiday season is a little different. It’s just a unique and great thing to do.”

Kenton Nickel also got his start at Pine Creek Farms, working for Ardie’s parents when he was in high school. That was when he discovered a passion for the trade.

“I worked there several years, enjoyed the work, seeing everybody come out at Christmas time and helping them celebrate Christmas,” he said. “We thought we’d want to be a part of that, too.”

Tucked away in the southeastern corner of Marion County, Peaceful Pines is an endeavor 10 years in the making.

Kenton decided to start the business in 2010 with the help of his family, but they couldn’t open for business until 2018 because the trees had to mature.

“We did our best those first several years to keep our costs down,” his wife, Eunice Nickel said. “It was really exciting when we did finally get to the first year where we were able to open and see the fruits of our labor.”

The Nickels’ three children already are taking a liking to being around the trees in the family’s third year selling trees.

“They just love being able to go out, go through the trees and play in them,” Kenton said. “They enjoy telling people they live on a Christmas tree farm. The oldest is 7, so they’re still learning. They want to get involved but they’re a little young.”

Goering sees it as a natural fit for a family business, though she and her husband aren’t thinking about passing it down just yet.

Waiting for trees to mature over several years has forced her to adopt a new perspective.

“It’s good for you,” Goering said. “It encourages you to think about things in the big picture. It encourages you to be patient, but that is a little different.”

Ardie has watched the artificial tree market grow significantly in the last 10 years. She estimates more than half of Christmas trees sold now are artificial, but notes that the reason people buy real trees often go beyond what an artificial tree offers.

“We definitely have some customers who say they only had artificial trees all their lives, so now they want a fresh Christmas tree,” she said. “I think part of it is the experience. The trees we grow here are ones people cut down themselves, so they go out in the field and pick one they like.”

Each of the farms has its own quirks as well, such as barrel tours at Peaceful Pines, and a candy cane tree maze at Pine Creek.

With all the activities that are offered in addition to finding a tree, there are Christmas tree farms have some similarities to pumpkin patches, Kenton said.

“As far as people wanting to get outside and support people who are in agriculture, it’s very similar,” Kenton said.

Even at a state level, there are efforts to have tree farmers promote their businesses as a form of agritourism, Ardie Goering said.

“Fewer and fewer people, as time goes on, have grown up on a farm,” she said. “Coming out to a farm is a new experience for a lot of people. People enjoy that, they enjoy coming out and seeing the farm.”

Being a tree farmer is to be included in a select group, and in Kansas that group is the 34 members of the Kansas Christmas Tree Growers Association.

“We are a scrappy bunch of people, as small business people often are,” Goering said. “In any small business, you work very hard. You have to constantly be thinking in terms of innovation, and I’d say growing Christmas trees in Kansas always has been uphill. It’s always a little tough because it is hotter and dryer here.”

Both families are members of the association, and having that access has been particularly helpful for the Nickels, Eunice said.

“We’ve been able to do some networking and learn a lot through being part of that group,” she said.

Growing in the area also means finding which trees grow best. The Nickels grow Scotch, Virginia and Austria pines, while the Goerings grow mainly Scotch and Virginia pines.

Pine Creek is adding one more breed to the mix this year, as the Goerings are experimenting with southwestern white pine, Ardie said.

“Everybody we know experiments with different varieties,” she said. “Some things will just grow better on your land than on someone else’s land.”

Other types of evergreens, like fir trees, can be shipped in, but pine trees are grown in Kansas because it is too hot and dry to grow fir trees here, Goering said.

Last modified Dec. 2, 2020

 

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