by Sally Colby
Establishing trees for erosion control was a fairly new concept in 1954, but that’s one of the conservation measures Neil Krueger’s parents undertook on their Stillwater, MN, farm.
“My dad had planted some trees on hillsides for erosion control,” said Neil. “Some of the neighbors liked the trees and asked if they could cut some for Christmas trees. That’s how it all started.”
Neil and his wife Deb worked with Neil’s parents to learn more about growing Christmas trees, then started planting trees on their own farm. “We worked with them and learned the business,” said Neil. “In 1994, they sold their farm and we began selling trees here from our farm in Lake Elmo, Minnesota.”
Today, the Kruegers are managing about 50 acres of trees on two farms. Neil recalls starting with Colorado blue spruce and Scotch pine, then switching to firs including Fraser, balsam and Canaan. They also plant some white pine and Norway pine.
Neil said he’s seeing customers favoring longer needled varieties. “We belong to the National Christmas Tree Association and our state Christmas tree association to make sure we’re on top of trends,” he said. “Our customers tell us what they like, and one of the things we’ve done in response to customers is to grow trees that are more natural and open.”
He prunes trees for less density while maintaining a desirable shape. “We try to keep the tree fairly narrow during the early stages of growth but with enough density to hide the trunk,” he said. “Most people don’t want to see a lot of trunk. In the last year, we let the new growth extend, which gives the tree a more natural look with enough density that it doesn’t look like a Charlie Brown tree.”
The Kruegers are trying to convince other growers to shape some trees the same way. “We aren’t able to supply all our needs for retail so we buy from fellow growers around the state,” said Neil. “They allow us to come into the fields and select the trees, then they deliver them to our farm as we need them throughout the season. We’re trying to convince them to lighten up a little bit on the shearing, and they’re responding.”
Neil said it’s important to allow trees to be shaped according to their natural growth. “Each tree is different,” he said. “Some trees should be more open; others respond more to a denser shape. It comes with experience.” He added that all firs respond well to lighter shearing.
For new plantings, the Kruegers first clear out each field. “Our fields are roughly one acre in size,” said Neil. “We clear a section, grind the stumps in the field, then plant a cover crop for a year. Then we plant trees into the cover crop.” When possible, he rotates tree species, although some species have specific needs.
“Firs generally like cooler soil, so on southern slopes, we use mulch from chipped trees from local tree companies, allow it to turn to mulch for a few years, then spread it in the rows,” said Neil. “It helps with moisture retention, helps keep weeds down and adds organic matter over time. It allows us to be almost but not quite organic. We use a little Roundup but no other herbicides.”
One of the cover crops he uses is Roundup Ready soybeans for nitrogen. He’s also used a rapeseed and turnip mixture in fields to break hardpan. Prior to planting, Neil either mows down the crop or plants into the beans. “The combination of cover crop and no plowing helps minimize weed seeds,” he said. “Grinding the stumps in the field also adds organic matter and suppresses weeds.”
New seedlings are three-year-old 10- to 12-inch well-established transplants with strong root systems. Neil and his crew plant new trees as soon as they can get in the field, usually by early May. Deb said the planting window for new trees is small because it’s critical to get them in the ground while they’re still dormant. The process is aided with the help of automated planter.
The Kruegers purchased a wreath-making machine, but Deb said it was difficult to find enough suitable boughs. “Making a wreath isn’t difficult,” she said. “Finding boughs is the hard part. We don’t cut anything off the trees so we don’t have extra branches.” The Kruegers purchase wreaths from a grower who uses a variety of fresh-cut greens to make wreaths and roping, and Deb and her crew decorate about 500 to 600 freshly-made wreaths each season.
Deb explained the farm has a reserve tagging system for customers who want to choose a tree prior to the season. About half of their customers take advantage of this option. “This year we’re spacing people more,” said Deb. “Customers can make an online reservation to visit the farm to tag a tree.” She said the locking tags are difficult to remove, and must stay on until the tree is claimed.
“Going out and cutting a tree in the field does not give a fresher tree,” said Deb. “Firs should come out of the field at Thanksgiving. We bundle the trees and keep them in the shade. Neil waters the cut trees at night, and they stay cooler and fresher in the tree barn. When they’re in the field, the wind whips them and the sun opens the needles. By keeping cut trees bundled in the shade until we need them, they stay fresher.”
Education and environmental measures are part of the ongoing ethic of the Kruegers’ farm. Many customers come from nearby St. Paul, which means they see a diversity of ethnicities. “We teach people why we grow trees and why it’s important,” said Deb. “We also teach them about the other people who come here.” A section in the warming house explains the variety of backgrounds hosted by the farm.
After Christmas, customers are encouraged to return their trees to the farm for chipping and composting. Chips from a local tree company also contribute to the compost pile. Deb said most customers return their trees and are happy to contribute to the next generation of trees.
The Kruegers look forward to seeing returning customers each year, many of whom bring extended families and young children. “Anybody can sell a tree or a wreath,” said Deb, “but to have something that’s joyful and fun keeps people coming back.”
Visit Krueger’s Christmas Trees online at KruegersChristmasTrees.com.