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People cut own Christmas trees for whole 'experience'

For the estimated 18% of real-tree buyers who opt to cut their own Christmas tree, the ritual is as much about the experience as it is about the perfect pine. Local tree farms have worked hard to make that experience merry and bright, by adding extras like Santa Claus visits, gift shops, craft classes, bonfires for making s’mores and sled rides featuring live reindeer.

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The Phil and Brittany Ring family always wanted to own a farm. Now, with their Ring Family Farms tree operation, that wish came true. Contributed / Ring Family Farms
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FARGO -- This weekend, after the last bit of pecan-pumpkin pie is gone and the traffic of frenzied Black Friday shoppers has cleared, Ivy and Rodney Holm will pack up the turkey sandwiches, round up their four kids, pile into their truck and make their annual pilgrimage to cut down their own Christmas tree.

The tradition started 20 years ago while they lived in Colorado, where anyone with a permit can chop down a towering pine on state or national forest land. Since moving back here to Ivy’s native state two years ago, they’ve continued the tradition,

“It’s all about Christmas —spending enough time together, being out in the woods, where no one is on their tablet and it’s nothing but just thinking about Christmas,” says Ivy.

Indeed, for the estimated 18% of real-tree buyers who opt to cut their own tree, the ritual is as much about the experience as it is about the perfect pine.

Area tree farms have worked hard to make that experience merry and bright, by adding extras like Santa Claus visits, gift shops, craft classes, bonfires for making s’mores and sled rides featuring live reindeer.

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"When we first opened this up, the goal wasn't to sell you a product, it was to establish a tradition," says Todd Cupkie, whose Cupkie Christmas Village/Tree Farm near Perham has become one of the best-known cut-your-own destinations in the region. "I've got people coming here now who are grandmas and grandpas, but started coming here when they were moms and dads and first brought their kids. So we'll see a couple of generations coming in."

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Santa makes plenty of appearances as part of the Ring Family Farm's holiday activities. Contributed / Ring Family Farms.

Real tree renaissance

There are nearly 350 million Christmas trees currently growing on U.S. tree farms and about 25 to 30 million real trees are sold every year, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.

Real Christmas trees offer numerous advantages, according to the association. They support life by absorbing carbon dioxide and other gases and emitting fresh oxygen. They stabilize soil, provide refuge for wildlife and create scenic green belts. Every tree harvested is replaced by one to three saplings the next spring. And real trees are a domestic product, unlike the artificial trees manufactured in China.

Even so, real tree sales have toppled in the past decade as more Americans buy artificial trees, according to the Denver Post. Between 75 and 80% of Americans who have a Christmas tree now have an artificial one, and the $1 billion market for fake fir grows by about 4% per year—despite them being reusable, according to the NCTA.

Like nearly everything else, COVID changed things. Real tree sales jumped in 2020, as the pandemic-weary masses gravitated toward the nostalgia, beauty and fragrance of f resh-cut firs, pines and spruces.

But as COVID giveth, it also taketh away. Pandemic aftereffects have managed to logjam access to Tannenbaums via supply bottlenecks, labor shortages and inflation. In response, more people than ever may look to tree farms for their Fraser fir this year.

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That makes tree farmers like Cupkie nervous, as he scrambles to fill demand for an anticipated 2,100 retail and wholesale trees this year. "How it affects me is that the phone is already ringing off the hook, with people wanting trees because their normal supplier can't get them," he says. "But when I have choose-and-cut customers, I have to limit the number of trees I harvest, because if a choose-and-cut customer pulls in and my land is bare, I have a problem."

With 20 years of managing a 43-acre, 35,000-tree farm under his belt, Cupkie has a long-range perspective on the tree shortage.

In 2008, after the economy crashed, many tree farmers planted fewer trees, he says. As it can take 12-13 years for the average evergreen to become a stately holiday fixture, that explains the nationwide dearth of trees today, Cupkie says.

Another factor has been the unpredictable whims of Mother Nature: Of the 6,500 new seedlings Cupkie planted this year, he predicts just 3,500 will survive. An unseasonably warm May encouraged early new growth, which was then literally nipped in the bud by frost right before Memorial Day weekend. The dry, hot summer that followed made matters worse.

As a result, Cupkie says he will have to scale back on some of the pricier features of his winter wonderland, like the live reindeer rental, which costs $10,000 per season. "A lot of people don't realize how much I'm spending out of pocket. I'm not making any money on it and I've got to hire help for it," he says. "We've got to be smart. Costs are up 30%."

Regardless of what Hallmark movies try to tell us, tree farming isn't all gingerbread and tinsel. Even so, Cupkie says there are rewards. "Those days right after Thanksgiving when you see the kids running around and having fun, it brings a tear to your eye," he says.

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A petting zoo is another feature on the farm. Contributed / Ring Family Farms.

More than just trees

Phil and Brittany Ring are much newer to the tree-farming game. The proprietors of Ring Family Farm, west of Thompson, North Dakota, have been at it just four years, but have seen the business take off much more quickly than the trees they planted could.

As the Rings wait for their own trees to mature, they rely on pre-cut trees from South Carolina. "Thank goodness our vendor is really good to us," Phil says. "Trees are hard to find. If we were starting this year as our first year, he wouldn't have been able to supply us with any."

The couple still works hard to give their customers a "cut-your-own" experience on their seven-acre spread. The trees are propped up in tree stands and arranged to resemble a natural "forest" of trees.

People don't seem to mind much, Phil says. He estimates only about 25% of their visitors want "to do the whole Clark Griswold thing" by cutting their own trees. The rest just enjoy picking a pre-cut tree and reveling in the holiday cheer.

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"The Lodge" at Ring Family Farms contains a gift shop and holiday decor. Contributed / Ring Family Farms.

Of which there is plenty. Visitors get a complimentary Christmas cookie and cup of hot cocoa or coffee. A large, red shed called "The Lodge" houses a gift shop and displays brimming with yuletide decorating ideas.

A bonfire beckons visitors, who can opt to buy a s'mores kit and roast marshmallows. Photo ops abound, as Santa makes frequent guest appearances. Craft classes are available for both kids and adults. And two new llamas, Bev and Bonnie, have joined the petting-zoo menagerie that includes donkeys, miniature ponies, bottle calves and a duck named Delores.

Last year, amid COVID, they offered tree delivery — by Santa, no less — to Grand Forks residents. That service remains this year, along with a new feature: A renovated grain bin from which they show holiday movies.

The Rings say they tried to keep track of how many visitors they had last year, but got so busy they lost count. "Every year, it's more than we anticipate," Brittany says. "We keep bumping things up. We want to make sure everybody can enjoy it."

It's all about attraction and volume in the Christmas-tree game, where buying season is as short, sharp and intense as the overly dry needles on a spruce. The season blasts off right after Thanksgiving and crashes to a halt at around Dec. 10.

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Megan Larson and her sons Noah, Kaden and Logan pick out the perfect tree at Cupkie Christmas Tree Farm. Contributed / Megan Larson.

Like Cupkie, the family lost much of its original 750 trees to factors like deer and drought. Fortunately, their full-time jobs working for the McKinnon Co., a beer distributorship in Grand Forks, helps to pay the bills and they plan to plant many more trees in the spring.

"We love it," Phil says. "Yes, it's work, but to us it doesn't seem like work."

Ivy and the holly

After coming back to her home state two years ago, Jamestown native Ivy Holm continued her family's tree-hunt tradition — with some modifications.

Although the Holms family got last year's specimen from a tree farm near Alexandria, Minnesota, Ivy didn't simply want any old tree along the beaten path. The owner took them deep into his tree-farm forest where they spotted a glorious 15-footer — all the better for displaying the 500-plus glass ornaments that Ivy has been collecting since college.

When they lived in Colorado, Ivy says she occasionally fell so in love with certain trees that she would underestimate their size. It would become an Olympian struggle to fit them in their very big Suburban and once they got the tree inside, no ladders were tall enough to decorate the top.

"You find the tree that speaks to you," says Ivy, acknowledging that her love for certain ginormous trees sometimes caused short tempers and tears. "But really, it's the only thing I have ever really made him do."

This year, Ivy, Rodney and their kids — ranging in age from college to 6 — will buy a permit to harvest a tree in the Paul Bunyan State Forest north of Park Rapids, Minnesota. (They also bought permits to harvest several smaller trees last year.) Ivy says there's a slight learning curve to harvesting from forestland, but the beauty of the trees are worth it. "It's a daylong event," she says. You have to decide where you can cut and the type of tree you want. There's so much deciduous up here, so you have to find the pockets of pine. But there are some gorgeous trees here."

She's happy that none of her kids seem to have "aged out" of the ritual. As proof that the pinecone doesn't fall from the tree, a couple of their kids like to have their own trees in their rooms. It was only then that Ivy finally consented to artificial trees — but only for safety reasons.

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The Larson boys find no job is too big when they're cutting their own tree. Contributed / Megan Larson

Frustrating, fun family memories

Megan and John Larson started the cut-your-own tradition five years ago, after moving from Fargo to Ulen, Minnesota. They figured it would be something fun they could do with their three sons, Logan, 11, Kaden, 9, and Noah, 8.

Now their annual pilgrimage to Cupkie's has become a highly anticipated event, not only for the outdoor activities and Santa appearances, but also because of the careful deliberation given to picking the ideal tree. Whether they choose a perfect, silvery blue spruce or a Charlie Brown tree that just needs a little love, everyone takes great pleasure in knowing they had a part in choosing it.

Even more exciting is that, every year, each family member takes turns actually cutting down the tree. "We help them get it started," Megan says. "But they love that they're not going to get in trouble for cutting down something."

For Phil Stahl of Hawley, Minnesota, his family's tree-cutting adventures could have been grist for a Dave Barry column. Inspired by a friend who regularly cuts down his own tree, Stahl and his wife, Melanie, decided to take their kids — Megan, Lilia and Gabe — to a Minnesota tree farm. He recalls "the kids all hopped up on hot cocoa and fighting over the best tree."

Stahl describes lying under the tree and struggling to cut it down, while overhearing other dads nearby also muttering with frustration as they attempted to be weekend Paul Bunyans.

It's the type of shared memory that a family can laugh about for years. "It's so intense of a memory, you could turn it into a movie or a book, that whole event," he says. "The kids were just the right age, so they could still have enough of the magic, but not so young that they'd be crying and screaming. I wish we had done it year after year."

Seeing the forest for the trees

If you’ve ever driven through a state or federal forest and thought, “That evergreen would make a perfect Christmas tree,” the good news is that it could be yours.

The US Forest Service offers a $5 permit to harvest Christmas trees from national forests (excluding plantations, research sites and harvest areas), says Amy Kerber, forestry outreach and legislative affairs supervisor with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. The public also can buy a $25 permit to cut trees in state forests.

She recommends touring the park before applying for your permit so you can identify the tree location when applying for the permit.

Kerber shares tips on harvesting a tree from state or national forestlands:

  • Mother Nature's living room is waaay bigger. Keep in mind that a tree standing outdoors may be much larger than it looks. What appears to be a medium-sized tree in the forest could quickly overtake your entire living room. Also remember that a larger tree will be harder to cut, transport and set up. So be sure to measure the height and width of the tree — along with the dimensions of the room where you'll display it — to make sure it fits.

  • Bring a hand saw and rope to tie the tree.

  • Consider bringing a sled or toboggan to transport the tree, as you may have to haul the tree quite a distance to your vehicle.

  • Dress warm and wear sturdy boots. You may be trudging up and down hills to reach that perfect balsam.

  • Don't top the tree. If cutting on forestland, you must cut down the whole tree. Some "shoppers" will actually lop off only part of the tree, which severely damages it or kills it completely.

  • Recognize wild trees aren’t like trees grown "in captivity." Unlike tree-farm trees, which are regularly sheared to give them that ideal triangular shape, naturally growing trees don't receive that periodic shaping and grooming. Wild trees in the forest also will have thinner trunk than a tree-farm one, so you might need to "shim it up in a tree stand," Kerber says.

  • Keep it legal. Permits to cut down a tree on federal or state forestland are highly affordable. But if you do so illegally, fines start at $125.

To learn more about national forest permits, go to https://www.recreation.gov/tree-permits . For state forest permits, contact your local Department of Natural Resources in Minnesota. Learn more at https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/forestry/harvest-permits-state-lands.html

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Tammy has been a storyteller most of her life. Before she learned the alphabet, she told stories by drawing pictures and then dictated the narrative to her ever-patient mother. A graduate of North Dakota State University, she has worked as a Dickinson, N.D., bureau reporter, a Bismarck Tribune feature writer/columnist, a Forum feature reporter, columnist and editor, a writer in NDSU's Publications Services, a marketing/social media specialist, an education associate in public broadcasting and a communications specialist at a nonprofit.
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