A family farm in Indiana has changed its face to meet the changing needs of the family who owns it as well as the community around it.
“My dad started the farm when he got out of the service,” said Tom Dull, describing the history of the Thorntown, IN farm. “His mom had inherited some ground and he started farming full time. They built the farm up until I graduated from Purdue and came back to the farm. We raised corn, soybeans, wheat, pigs and cattle. Then we decided to diversify and started growing Christmas trees, and that took off beyond what we ever thought it would. When competition for corn and soybean acres is so fierce, everybody is after those acres to raise commodities. We see growth potential in agritourism.”
The Dulls have brought their son and his wife into what is now known as Dull’s Tree Farm to build the agritourism side of the enterprise. The family started growing pumpkins and developed a popular corn maze to attract customers throughout the fall season.
Although the Dulls still farm 1,900 acres of corn and beans, they’ve added 45 acres of Christmas trees. Tom is a seasoned farmer, but found new challenges in growing Christmas trees. “Every tree farm is different,” he said. “Soil type and microclimate can be different. Maybe the neighbor 20 miles away can grow some semblance of a Fraser fir, and we can’t grow them at all. And they can’t grow them as well as in North Carolina or Michigan.”
The Dulls plant varieties of trees according to soil type, which varies widely throughout the farm. “We can plant a section of Canaan firs, and even though they’re planted the same day, the trees that are ‘happy’ will be a foot or two taller than the trees that are not happy,” said Tom. “Then we’ll know the next time around to plant something different.”
Tom says that when they started planting Christmas trees in 1985, they planted two-thirds Scotch pine and the rest white pine because that’s what the growers who helped them get started said the market wanted at the time. However, consumer preferences in trees have shifted over the years, which can be one of the most challenging aspects of the Christmas tree business.
“We’re always trying to guess what the market will be seven or eight years down the road,” said Kerry. “Right now, our planting ratio is 80 percent Canaan fir and 10 percent white pine, with some other varieties like Concolor fir, Norway Spruce and blue spruce. We like to have some of those to sell as B&B trees. We don’t sell many spruce for Christmas trees because they don’t last as long, so they’re usually the B&B trees.”
When Dull’s first started in the Christmas tree business, they were growing more trees than they could sell, so they sold some wholesale to small accounts. But it wasn’t long before retail demand on the farm grew to the point that they couldn’t justify selling wholesale. “We started bringing in trees,” said Tom. “We couldn’t grow them fast enough.”
Kerry says an important consideration for any business that involves a lot of people coming onto the farm is parking. “It’s hard to justify giving up the land that could be planted in trees to put stone down for a parking lot,” she said. “All vehicles stay in the parking lot, then they can drive by the other side of the barn to pick up their tree after it’s been processed through the barn.” Kerry says the system works well for both efficiency and safety. Arriving customers start at the central barn where they are provided with carts and saws, then directed to the tree fields. Most people choose to walk to the fields, but since the Dulls have expanded the Christmas tree fields, they’re anticipating the need for tractors and wagons to transport customers.
Dulls’ primary customers are coming from a 50 mile radius, although many are from farther away because they moved out of the area and prefer to return to Dull’s.
Kerry says some new Christmas tree customers are coming to the farm after having been at Dull’s for fall activities. “We have an event facility on the farm,” she said, “so any event we hold draws people who may not know we have Christmas trees. We’re pretty good at cross-marketing.” Dull’s hosts birthday parties, field trips, class reunions and retreats; and are planning to develop more educational programs. Dull’s also hosted some of the contests for the National FFA this past fall.
When it comes to trends for Christmas trees, Kerry says some people ask for tall, skinny trees, but once they see a tree like that in the field, they change their mind. “People can’t always visualize what they can do with a tree,” she said. “We need to do a better job displaying them to show them what they can do with a tree that doesn’t look that appealing out in the field.”
In addition to fresh trees, customers can select freshly made wreaths, roping, grave blankets, centerpieces, kissing balls and table arrangements. “Wreath sales have grown tremendously over the past few years,” said Kerry. “Years ago, one of the biggest changes we made with our wreaths is building a wreath barn where people can watch wreaths and garlands being made. That was a huge seller — when they can actually see it happening, they’re more likely to buy one than if it’s just displayed in a barn. Seasonal employees make wreaths, and people can watch the entire process from cutting the greens to decorating to the finished wreath.”
One unique feature of the farm is that all buildings, except one, date to the mid-1800s. Three buildings are original to the property — the house, large barn and the wreath barn. Several log cabins have been moved in from other locations in Indiana and the Dulls are working on the foundation for another barn that will be moved to the property.
Part of the farm’s mission statement is to “educate people about agriculture while they’re having fun.” Kerry has worked with Farm Bureau’s Ag in the Classroom program to develop age-appropriate programs for visitors. “When we have school tours, it isn’t just play time,” said Tom. “If they don’t learn something about agriculture when they’re here, we haven’t done our job.”
Visit Dull’s online at www.dullstreefarm.com .