by Sally Colby
The weather in Casper, WY is predictably windy, with extreme cold and heat, and the soil is highly alkaline. That’s why it took the Smidt family some time to figure out the best way to grow trees and produce on their farm outside the city of Casper.
The Smidt’s Leeward Tree Farm is operated by Bruce and Jennifer Smidt, along with their son Freddie and daughter Kylie. Kylie explains that her father, Bruce, was a landscaper for more than 25 years and grew tired of shipping in trees from out of state for landscaping jobs. When Bruce had an opportunity to purchase land near Casper, he started raising his own trees.
“He bought an alfalfa field,” said Kylie, explaining the 1994 purchase. “We started planting trees, but we didn’t start selling from there until about 1998. At the time, he was in the middle of a big landscaping job that he worked on for two more years, and after that was finished, he started growing trees full time.”
The Smidts found that growing trees in Casper is challenging. “We stick with growing what we know is hardy,” she said. “We grow everything in our fields, in the ground in root control bags. We grow trees for several years before they’re sold to the public, so the trees are tough and acclimated to the climate. The soil pH is extremely high, and there aren’t a lot of trees that do well with that.”
Leeward Tree Farm focuses primarily on three trees that are the hardiest for the region: quaking aspen, cottonless cottonwood and ponderosa pine. “We sell a lot of those,” said Kylie. “They can handle the temperatures, soil and wind here. We also have some hardy introduced species like honey locust and some ashes, and some tough ornamentals.”
Trees arrive in spring as bare root whips, and are grown and pruned for several years. Since the four family members do most of the work, they have a unique arrangement for sales. “Customers can come to the farm on Saturday to select trees,” said Kylie. “They’ll put a ribbon on it, then we’ll either dig and plant it for them or load it up for delivery. Customers can select a tree any time, and we’ll dig it when the tree is dormant. We do late fall digging after we’ve had a couple of hard frosts, and early spring digging before trees leaf out.”
The Smidts realize homeowners often require information about how to care for a newly planted tree. To ensure success, the Smidts walk customers through every step of the process. “I want to make sure the homeowner gets the right tree, and that it’s going to live and do well for them,” said Kylie. “We have an investment in these trees since we’ve grown them for several years before we sell them. We make sure the soil is amended correctly for the tree species, tell them how big to dig the hole, whether the tree needs to be staked and if deer wire is necessary. We also provide a watering and fertilizing schedule, and tell them what insect pests to look for.”
Sometimes customers seeking trees will arrive with a photo or a sketch of where they want to plant a tree, which Kylie says is helpful, along with rough measurements. “Sometimes they want to put a Colorado spruce in a little tiny spot,” she said. “That tree is going to grow to 50 feet and 30 feet wide, so that spot isn’t right for that tree.”
In 2003, the Smidts purchased another plot of land, which they use for growing both trees and produce. “We’ve always had a garden,” said Kylie, “and when we bought the first land in 1998 we had a big garden there. We started doing a farmers market when I was eight years old. We grew more and more each year, and when we bought this other piece of land in 2003 and had the opportunity to grow more produce, we’ve started to grow more every year.”
The Smidts’ big crop, and the one they are known for, is sweet corn. Kylie says although sweet corn can be difficult to grow in the area due to both the alkaline soil and short season, they’ve figured out how to do it. Ideally, corn is planted around Memorial Day and ready for harvest in mid-August. This year, the Smidts planted all the corn at once because the weather was suitable. “We grow a couple of different varieties that are ready within a few days of each other to stagger it that way,” said Kylie. “In the past, we’ve planted it in the middle of May and the second at the end of May, but we have to play that by ear depending on the season.”
Other produce crops include beets, carrots, cucumbers, several varieties of winter squash, zucchini, potatoes, onions, green beans, sweet and hot peppers, cabbage, pumpkins and tomatoes. Kylie has found pumpkins are heavy feeders and require fertilizer application frequently throughout the summer. Once the plants set fruit, Kylie and her dad turn the pumpkins regularly to get the best shapes. “One of our main challenges is the weather,” said Kylie. “They tolerate a light freeze, but a heavy frost will affect them. This year, we had to harvest all the pumpkins from the field, load them on trailers and into our heated shop. Then we had to get them all back out and set up again. If we have a warm fall, we’re fine. But if there’s one cold night, we have to get everything out of the field.”
Tomatoes have been Kylie’s project, and she has learned the best way to extend the season is to grow them under roof. Since there aren’t a lot of fresh tomatoes available in Casper, people are willing to purchase whatever varieties Kylie grows.
“It’s tricky to grow tomatoes here,” she said. “It’s taken me a good 10 years to get it down. They look like what you’d buy in the grocery store, but they have that juicy, homegrown flavor. This year has been my best year — they looked fantastic.”
Kylie selects seed based on disease resistance, and starts tomatoes from seed in March. In mid-May, tomatoes are transplanted to the hothouse, where they grow reliably and bear until the middle of November.
Since thrips have been the main insect pest on tomatoes, Kylie starts managing for those as soon as plants emerge. Although she has been aware of the presence of thrips for several years, it was a matter of learning how to manage them. “It’s disguised as a nutrient deficiency in the plant,” she said. “It looks like the plant is lacking a nutrient, but it’s actually an insect. Spinosad is fairly cheap and it’s been the most effective treatment.”
Customers appreciate a large, juicy tomato, so Kylie grows just a few varieties each year along with several new ones.
The Smidts sell produce both at their on-farm stand and at one farmers market in Casper. But the season will soon be over, and the family will start planning for 2018. “This year we ordered about 500 new trees, which will arrive first week in April,” said Kylie, who is in charge of ordering seeds. “When we’re cooped up and it’s snowing outside, it’s fun to start planning and getting ready for next year.”
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Sticking with what works
by Sally Colby