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Kansas tree farms becoming more rare

LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP)--It has become more difficult to find Christmas tree farms in eastern Kansas in part because owners are getting too old to run the farms.

The trend may actually help Wilderson Tree Farm in Basehor, which the Lawrence Journal-World reported recently is the only Leavenworth County member of the Kansas Christmas Tree Growers Association.

The farm has been drawing customers from a wider range than ever before, including from Missouri and as far north as Atchison.

"People come out here and say, boy, they're sure glad they found a farm that's open," said Wilderson Tree Farm owner Chuck Wilderson.

But he plans to phase out his business, too, during the next five years, adding his own chapter to the state's tree farm rarity.

"I'm 75, so I'll be 80 then," Wilderson said. "It's getting a little harder to manage everything. The December weekends are just so busy and stressful."

The Wilderson farm started in 1976, when Chuck's son David, 14 at the time and an aspiring forester, planted 1,000 Austrian pine seedlings. The family began harvesting trees in 1982 so David could pay for his college education at Kansas State University. The operation grew to about 13,000 Austrian, Scotch and White pine trees on 18 1/2 acres at its peak.

The farm now has between 3,000 and 5,000 trees for sale, plus several hundred that are still maturing. The farm also imports from Wisconsin some pre-cut Fraser and balsam fir trees, which can't survive hot Kansas summers.

Wilderson stopped planting new trees three years ago in anticipation of his retirement. His son still drops by the farm on weekends to do some work.

"He's still my best help," Wilderson said.

The rest of the labor, including the cutting and preparing of trees for customers as well as care for the farm during the spring and summer, is provided by local high school and college students.

The labor-intensive nature of a tree farm is why the Bishop's Pine Crest farm in Linwood stopped planting trees six years ago, said Myrna Bishop, who owns the farm with her husband, Ed. She said that as she and her husband aged into their 70s, they decided the work had become too much of a burden.

She said profits on the farm were never huge, either, with the money poured into maintaining the farm and advertising.

"There's not enough profit,'' she said. "And we're old."

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