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Family Christmas tree business has timeless roots

By Lacey Newlin

Picture a crackling fire, snow flurries piling up on the windowsill, and a family going out to choose the perfect Christmas tree. It may sound like a Norman Rockwell original, but in actuality, it’s the scene of a good old-fashioned Christmas season with the Delp Christmas Tree Farm.

In 1959, Cecil Delp and his wife, Ruby, started the farm in St. John, Kan. Cecil first considered the idea of a tree farm while visiting his logger cousins in Michigan, said Cecil’s son, Tony.

“He noticed the sandy soil and thought, ‘Our soil is sandy, let’s give it a try,’” Tony recalled. “Dad was one that just liked to try new things. He always thought there was a better way to do everything.”

Cecil’s operation was the first Christmas tree farm in Kansas with 17,500 trees harvested in the inaugural years. Later the farm’s numbers increased to upwards of 300,000 trees on 140 acres of soil at its largest in the late 1990s. The farm was the biggest tree operation in Kansas for quite a while before cutting down to a smaller size in the past decade. Although the farm has been trimmed down to a still impressive 20,000 trees growing on 20 acres of land, the ever-enchanting Christmas institution is still as family friendly and traditional as it was when Cecil planted his first tree many years ago.

A family tree

Tony and his siblings grew up on the farm helping their father raise the trees. He moved away after college and lived in Dallas, Texas, and worked as a mechanical engineer. Tony decided to move his wife, Linda, and their three children back to St. John in 1976.

“At that point my father was ready to retire,” Tony said. “I took over the farm and ran it for 15 years before sizing it down a bit. Then my son, Joel, moved back to the area a few years ago and he and his family have started helping with the farm.”

Right now, Tony is slowly handing the farm over to Joel.

“I am a third generation Christmas tree farmer,” Joel said. “I enjoy trying new tree varieties and working outside with my family.”

Joel and his wife, Sarah, have three children: Elijah, Emmett and Cecilia, named for her great-grandfather, Cecil. One day Joel hopes to pass the tree farm on to one of his children just as his father and grandfather have done.

“They are pretty young right now, but it would be great if one of my sons would take over someday,” Joel said.

All about the trees

Initially, Cecil raised Scotch and Austrian Pine varieties. Although they are still grown at the farm, Tony has shifted to other types of pine and fir trees. Currently, the farm offers Concolor Fir, Canaan Fir, Douglas Fir, Eastern White Pine, Southwestern White Pine, Austrian Pine and Scotch Pine. The Delp family is experimenting with Turkish and Korean Fir trees to see how they fare in the Kansas climate.

“This is pretty unique for Kansas,” Joel said. “There aren’t many farms in Kansas that can grow fir trees.”

Delp Farms even raises a pine variety that is great for people with allergy restrictions. Joel says the Eastern White Pine is usually a good fit for those with sensitivity to trees.

“Having several different year classes of trees is important to Christmas tree buyers,” Joel said. “It takes seven years to get trees to the first year you would want to cut, but you will have people who will want bigger trees as well.”

Not every tree grown at the farm is a suitable to bear garland. Wreathes and decorative greenery are made from trees that weren’t cut out to become Christmas trees.

Trees are priced based on height and variety.

Although most customers come from western Kansas and the Panhandle of Oklahoma, some people purchase trees via the Internet and have them shipped to different locations. Although the Delps do not dabble in wholesale near as much as they used to, they do still sell some trees to wholesale providers.

Wholesale

“When we first started, we were the only tree farm in the state,” Tony said. “There really wasn’t any competition.”

As the Delp Tree Farm grew, similar operations across the state started popping up. Tony stated that at one point, there were more than 250 tree farms in Kansas. To sustain the farm, the Delps began selling more wholesale trees to supermarkets and retail stores in Colorado, Nebraska, Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Kansas.

“When we were doing a lot of wholesale, we were growing a lot of Scotch Pine,” Joel said. “At the time, it was nationwide the tree of choice. Then everyone started wanting Frasier Fir. We are unable to grow the Frasier Fir here in Kansas due to the altitude.”

Because they no longer grew the trending tree of that era, the Delps sold fewer trees to wholesale operations and slowly decreased in tree numbers.

Much of the tree competition was weeded out over time as new producers realized the time investment and hard labor it took to operate a tree farm, according to Tony.

“In the meantime, I decided to be different,” Tony said. “We started raising different varieties of trees that no one else could raise in this area.”

Irrigation is key

The Delps irrigate their crop from a 90-foot well. Some fir trees such as the Canaan Fir require more water during the summer. However, Joel says in the past few years all of the trees have needed some sort of irrigated water.

“We use an overhead sprinkler and several hundred trees have drip irrigation systems,” Tony said. If we have very hot, dry weather, we will water twice a week with the drip irrigation system putting two gallons of water per hour for four hours. Meaning 16 gallons of water per hour per tree.”

According to Tony, this part of the tree business can get expensive.

“A lot of farms don’t have access to water the way we do,” Joel said.

The farm offers three different kinds of fir trees that require more water than what Kansas can provide. Tony says the irrigation system he uses makes it possible to grow these sought-after varieties.

“They do take longer to grow but it gives us a specialized market,” Tony said. “People will pay a premium for them and there is no other place in the state that you can go and cut a fir tree out of a field in Kansas.

Risky business

A major risk of starting a tree farm is lack of insurance.

“We are unable to ensure our crop like other farmers are,” Joel said. “Christmas trees are a little different that way. If a fire were to go through the crop we wouldn’t be able to reclaim any of it and it would be another seven years before we could harvest another tree.”

Like any crop, Christmas trees have their adversaries. Although fire is at the front of most tree farmers’ minds, there are other opponents to this niche market crop.

Tony says weather conditions are some of the biggest challenges of operating a tree farm. Hail and tornadoes can devastate a crop but Tony notes that the hail has to be decent sized to wipe out a field of 10-foot trees. Unfortunately, Kansas’ reputation for such natural disasters does not bode well for some trees.

Aside from Mother Nature’s wrath, Christmas tree farmers must pay close attention to other pests and diseases such as the beetle gypsy moth and the fungal pathogen and root rot. Luckily for the Delps, many of these dangers are not present in Kansas.

“We are fortunate because we are growing trees where they are not supposed to grow, so there aren’t a lot of hosts such as other forests to create these problems,” Tony said.

Joel says bagworms can also be a problem but can be prevented easily with an insecticide spray or even by just removing them manually.

A nematode called pine wilt is of big concern for Delp farms as it attacks Scotch and Austrian Pine, two of the varieties of trees grown on the operation. However, since they have shifted away from these varieties, the disease is not as much of a problem.

“Perhaps the biggest challenge is knowing what kind of market you are going to have 10 to 12 years down the road,” Tony said.

Custom trees

The Delp Tree Farm provides a number of special services for customers to ensure they receive a quality product. Some people prefer a unique, personalized look to their trees. A process called flocking can be applied to trees by spraying a cellulose fiber on the branches to give the tree a different color. It is not necessary to provide water for flocked trees because the adhesive spray holds moisture in to keep the tree healthy. Trees can be flocked in an assortment of colors including but not limited to white, purple, pink and blue.

Because certain varieties of Christmas trees tend to go dormant in the fall and winter months, the pigments in the needles turn a yellowish color, according to Joel. At the Delp farm, a water-based colorant is sprayed on trees to hold the lush green color commonly associated with Christmas trees.

Labor intensive

“A lot of the work is done in the summer when we shear the trees,” Joel said.

Joel is a high school science teacher, which fits perfectly with the demands of the Christmas tree business. He says weekends are the busiest times in the Christmas season, so he is able to help out without taking time away from his teaching career.

“Managing a tree farm on the side can be done,” Joel said, “but it’s a lot of work. Some types of farming are more mechanized. Machines do a lot of the work for you. For Christmas trees, there’s a lot of manual labor.”

Shearing the trees is the more labor-intensive part of the Christmas tree business, according to Joel. This is the process of trimming the trees to the perfect Christmas tree shape. A machine called a Saje is used to achieve the idealized outline of the tree. The Saje is attached to a 40-pound backpack with a motor inside. A sickle extends from the Saje to reach high up into the tree so the sides can be trimmed. To make sure each tree is perfectly trimmed, hand shears are used. Next the leader or top of the tree is pruned.

“It is important to get the leader going good to get a good looking tree,” Joel said.

Trees are pruned once a year from the end of May to the beginning of June. If trees are not pruned they may not develop the Christmas tree shape.

“They may grow too wide and unruly,” Joel said. “Some varieties can grow too fast if you do not trim the leader. Gaps can also develop in the tree making them less full.”

A tree planter is used to disk up the ground on open fields to plant trees. An auger can be used to dig holes in fields with trees already growing in them.

In the spring, about 1,000 seedlings are planted for the next generation. Due to complementary soil, it is not necessary for the Delps to fertilize their crop. Although trees take an average of seven years to grow to prime Christmas tree height, the Delps are able to purchase seedlings that are from one to two years of age at the time of planting, shaving some time off the time it takes to bring a tree to term.

“There’s a lot of manual work, and then the time investment as well. But it can be a good supplemental income for someone who wants to put in the time and resources.”

Tree hugger

Artificial trees seem like they would be kryptonite to a Christmas tree farm but Tony indicates otherwise.

“The people who want a live tree, want a live tree and not an artificial one,” Tony said. “As far as saving the environment, a live tree does an awful lot more to help. They put off a lot of oxygen and take in carbon dioxide. Even though we cut them each year, we replace them by planting several thousand each year.”

Tony adds that unlike live trees, most artificial trees do not decompose naturally.

Family affair

“We don’t try to compete with big name stores,” Joel said, “We market more towards a family experience and choosing the tree from the field.”

“We do try to offer some services that customers wouldn’t get at a store or even another tree farm,” Joel said. “We shake all the dead needles out of the trees, net them for travel and help load them up. We have a fireplace, hot apple cider, peanuts and Christmas music in our office. We have families that have been coming out for years and years since we first opened.”

Joel says customer service is very important to the business.

“Dad thoroughly enjoyed customers that came to the farm,” Tony said.

The Delps don’t buy very much advertising these days. Joel says most of the customers hear about the farm from others who have visited in the past.

“We have the best customers in any business,” Tony shared.

Even without advertising, the Delps’ operation is very successful.

“Our tree sales have grown the last few years but we’re in a little different market area,” Joel said.

Tony indicates that the nationwide Christmas tree market is stable to growing slightly but varies some years.

“There have been times that it has kind of gone down over time and times it is at an increase,” Tony said.

Aside from markets and trend lines, the Christmas tree farming is a unique agricultural endeavor. The Delp Tree Farm is more than just a business. It’s a family providing a tradition for other families.

“It’s rewarding to watch families come out and cut a Christmas tree and to see them having a good time,” Joel said.

Date: 12/02/2013



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