Bob and Kathy Wendt had no prior experience growing any crops, but when a Greenfield, IN property became available, they decided to take the plunge.
“We weren’t corn or bean farmers, and didn’t have any knowledge of herbicides or pesticides,” said Bob. “We were both graduate veterinarians and had our own clinic for about 10 years, but it wasn’t our cup of tea so we sold the clinic.”
The Wendts’ new property was 40 acres, plenty for growing Christmas trees, but it came with a lot of baggage. The landlocked property had been in dispute by previous generations and the land had been used to dump and burn cars. Although an easement allowed access to the property, it would have been close to impossible to add electricity and construction projects or use it for anything other than crops. “No one would buy the property, and it wasn’t that great for farmland anyway,” said Bob. “There was abused wooded acreage and improperly managed timber.”
The most challenging aspect was that access to the property required crossing a creek. “We called the state to find out what kind of permits we’d need to build a bridge or an elevated roadway,” said Bob. “At that time (30 years ago), they said we could do whatever we wanted. But if water backed on neighbor’s property or if the bridge washed out and hit the county bridge, we’d be liable for that.”
The solution was to dig a pond and use the soil to create an elevated roadway — all at the Wendts’ expense. Bob and Kathy built a log home on the property, removed the junk and managed the high-end hardwoods on the property. After a failed attempt to grow hay on the 17 tillable acres, Bob’s father suggested growing Christmas trees.
The state forester the Wendts had worked with to restore the hardwood section of the property knew a Michigan grower who started Christmas tree seedlings. “Not knowing anything, we ordered 500 Scotch pines,” said Bob. “We planted them, but didn’t know anything about pesticides, herbicides, scale, diplodia or Zimmerman pine moth. And we noticed that every winter, these Scotch pines turned yellow like a banana.”
When their trees reached about three to four feet, the Wendts joined the Indiana Christmas Tree Growers Association. “In the beginning, we didn’t know about shearing, and they told us we had to paint the Scotch pines,” said Bob. “We ordered green paint and sprayed them, and that probably works on Scotch pines that discolor a little bit, but when the trees are brilliant yellow, it looks like a brilliant yellow tree that’s painted green.”
Bob recalls the first weekend they sold trees in rainy weather, and a woman with a white coat ended up with green paint on her. “It turns out that the guy who sold us seedlings knew less than I knew,” he said. “He was growing an Arctic strain of Scotch pine that loses chlorophyll in winter and turns yellow.”
Through his own research and Christmas tree meetings, Bob learned more about growing trees. “We learned about pre-emergent herbicides, weed control, shearing, and all the things everyone who has been in business for many years already knows,” he said. “But we had to learn the hard way.”
The Wendts added white pines along with better quality Scotch pines. “We also planted Canaan, blue spruce, white spruce and Norway spruce,” said Bob. “I bought a Bobcat and a tree spade and we got into the B&B business.”
After some time in the business, Bob gained a better view of the future of his tree farm. Because of the heavy clay soil and humid weather, Bob found it difficult to grow some of the firs, but Korean fir, Canaan fir and Alpine fir seem to do well. “The only place we could find those was the University of Idaho experimental nursery,” said Bob. “The bread and butter tree for us is Canaan fir. We also grow some balsams and also Turkish fir, which is probably the tree of the future for us.”
Bob’s goal is to grow a variety of trees that can survive any weather pattern. “We’ve learned where the clay knobs are, and where the wet holes are on the farm,” he said. “We’ve reforested those areas and put them back into walnut, white oak and red oak — trees we can sell as B&B, and if we don’t sell them, the next generation will have some fine timber.”
Also thriving in the managed timber section are wild mushrooms such as lions mane, hen of the woods and chicken of the woods. “We changed the environment so that more of them grew there naturally,” said Bob. The Wendts’ 11-year old son Nathan has taken an interest in the Christmas trees, hardwoods and mushrooms, and is familiar with invasive species and pests.
The timber area is intensely managed, and includes pawpaw trees that were added about 15 years ago. The pawpaws have turned out to be a profitable side business, and the fruits are sold to a pawpaw ice cream company, two breweries, a winery and about 20 high-end restaurants that use them in desserts.
Because pawpaws are poor pollinators, it was challenging to get them to bear good crops until Bob figured out the secret — training honeybees to pollinate the flowers. “The first year we used a toothpick to put a drip of honey in the pawpaw flowers,” he said. “Once one bee knows, he tells the others. So on a tree that would normally make one pawpaw fruit every 10 years, we’ll get 50 years (of fruit) in one year.”
During Christmas tree season, a man who started working at Lost Forty when he was 15 greets customers, explains tree varieties and the pricing system. Customers can cut any tree on the farm — none are off limits. Two shakers and two balers help speed out the checkout process. “A complaint we hear from other farms is that people drag their tree in and end up waiting an hour for their tree to be processed and out of there,” said Bob. “One thing that’s important to everybody is their time. They may want to take three hours to walk through the field and pick out a tree, but once they do, they want to pay for the tree, get it loaded and get it out of here.”
Although Lost Forty used to advertise for seasonal help, they now employ vocational agriculture students from a local high school. “Every year, we call the school and ask if they have any students who would like to work on a Christmas tree farm,” said Bob. “The teacher sends us the names of those he thinks would be the best workers. We’ve gotten outstanding workers that way, and in turn, we pay them well and serve them a hot lunch. Happy help is good help. They’ll usually come back every year until they go to college, and a lot of them will come back and work over their Christmas break.”
Visit Lost Forty Tree Farm at www.lostfortytreefarm.com.