Gary and Jane Harman didn’t set out to sell Christmas trees.
“We bought an acreage east of town, and it was wide open,” explains Gary Harman. “It was at the top of a hill, so we planted a windbreak of pine and walnut trees. When they were about waist high, friends started suggesting we cut them for Christmas trees.”
That was in 1976. Walnut Ridge Farm has since moved to a 40-acre tract on the northeast corner of Indianola, where anywhere between 8,000 and 10,000 people come each year to select and hand-cut their tree.
“We have three- and four-generation families that come to get their tree,” adds Harman. “It’s part of their family tradition.”
The Walnut Ridge experience is about picking the tree.
“We’re in the Christmas tree business,” says Harman. “We don’t serve hot chocolate. We don’t provide entertainment or have a gift shop (although they do sell holiday wreaths and greenery). We pride ourselves on selling quality trees.”
There are miniature train rides on weekends, but other than that, Harman, who personally greets as many customers as possible, says the entertainment is in the togetherness provided by the family outing to get a tree.
“People really seem to enjoy cutting their own tree the most,” adds Harman. He supplies around 60 saws and 40 carts for the job, all used in an average weekend day during the season. Folks rarely ask for assistance, preferring to tackle the job themselves.
That's good enough for everyone from Simpson College students to governors. Gov. Kim Reynolds is the fourth governor in office to get trees from Walnut Ridge — trees that have graced the governor’s office, the Capitol and the Wallace Building. Reynolds is one of the three-generation families that have made Walnut Ridge a part of their family Christmas.
Walnut Ridge also prides itself on its customer service. “People can take as long as they want to pick out and cut down their tree,” says Harman. “But once they get to the barn, we want to serve them as quickly as possible.” That service includes trimming the bottom of the tree, shaking out old needles and net wrapping, along with checkout.
Challenges growing trees
There are challenges to growing 40,000 trees. Around 5,000 seedlings are planted each year. “We plant as soon as the frost is out of the ground, around the first of April,” says Harman.
Thirty-eight miles of tree rows mean a 76-mile trip with the mower, Harman says.
But its the mowing that he credits with the health of the trees. “It allows air to circulate, and the air movement is good for both insect and disease control.” He sprayed once for spider mites in 2012, but otherwise has seen few problems.
He soil tests before fertilizer application, just like any crop. “Trees are a row crop, just like corn and beans,” says Harman.
The key to the quality of his trees is the care and attention to shearing, Harman said. He shears every tree, every year, starting with the 2- to 4-year-old, 12-inch tall seedlings. He starts with the pines in mid-June, as soon as the new growth is fully extended. The firs are a little slower to sport new growth. Shearing for them comes about mid-July, along with the Blue Spruce. The rest of the summer is spent shaping trees and mowing. He spends around 400 hours a year shearing trees.
Walnut Ridge Farm offers Fraser Fir and Canaan Fir trees up to 12 feet tall and over; Concolor Fir, White Pine and Scotch Pine over 9 feet tall; and Blue Spruce up to 8 feet tall. All trees are sold by the foot.
Buying habits have changed through the years, Harman says. About 95 percent of sales used to be Scotch Pine, with the remainder White Pine. Now folks prefer Fraser and Canaan Firs, along with some Scotch and White Pines and Blue Spruce.
Today, Walnut Ridge Farm is a family affair. Harman’s son, Todd, comes on weekends to help with the shearing; and come the holiday season, it’s all hands on deck. Jane helps plant and creates garland and wreaths. Daughter-in-law, Jen, is a pro at the cash register.
“She is the last person customers see before they leave,” says Harman, “and they always leave with a smile on their face.”
Queck-Matzie is a freelance writer from Greenfield.
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