It’s the first weekend of December, and Jessica and Rusty Clark are going to buy their Christmas tree.
On Mexico Gravel Road, far from the center of Columbia, they wander around the seven acres of Christmas trees at John Alspaugh's farm. They’re looking for one that will impress their family coming in town for the holidays.
It’s a quiet process. They stroll in silence as their eyes search for the perfect tree, one that stands out among its 6,000 counterparts.
Rusty Clark points to the pine he likes best.
“I like the other one better,” Jessica Clark responds.
The decision is made. Rusty Clark lies on the dry dirt. Gently at first, he begins to saw the trunk. It takes about eight minutes, but sure enough, the tree cracks and falls to the ground.
The pine is then dragged over to Alspaugh, who brushes his gloved, sap-stained hands up and down the tree to break up any clumps of dead needles that formed over time.
He places it into a homemade contraption, appropriately named “The Shaker,” which shakes off the dead needles. A net is put around the tree to make for easy transportation, and the ritual is done.
A Christmas tree has been acquired.
For Alspaugh, growing and selling Christmas trees is his retirement activity. It gets him out of the house and working, just as he did growing up on a farm in southern Missouri.
Although it’s quite a bit of a change from his previous profession — he was a statistics professor at MU — farming comes naturally to him. He owns about 200 acres of land, which has been acquired gradually since his first purchase in 1976. He rents out some acreage, farms soybeans and Christmas trees on some and just holds onto the rest.
Planting Christmas trees as part of the mix was done out of necessity. His farmland was eroding, and trees help stabilize the ground.
It’s not real clear why Alspaugh chose Christmas trees over, say, apple trees. He just says: “The land needed to be used. It’s not real big science to grow a tree.”
So he comes out every day, beginning on Thanksgiving, and sells his trees. On weekends, when business picks up, Alspaugh’s son, Bruce, helps out. Simple enough.
Carol Ann Alspaugh pulls into the farm’s parking lot, or to be more accurate, the cleared dirt area in the middle of thousands of pine trees.
She hasn’t come to help shake out dead pine needles or to help net trees. She brings lunch. Today’s meal is courtesy of Hardee’s.
Before the men can eat, though, they have to wait for a lull in their continuous customer traffic. Their burgers will idly sit in Carol Ann Alspaugh's car.
The men continue to toil away while Carol Ann Alspaugh greets new customers. She hands them saws and measuring sticks and gives a little background on the farm. For those who have never cut down a tree before, she offers advice.
John Alspaugh occasionally sips the hot coffee that Carol Ann Alspaugh also brought for him. Something has to keep him running. Finally, around 1 p.m., the awaited calm comes, and the men savor their burgers and a break from business.
During a typical season, John Alspaugh will sell about 300 trees. In 15 years, he has never stayed open all the way until Christmas. If he continued to sell beyond his 300-tree quota, the farm would soon be barren.
Every March, John Alspaugh and Bruce Alsplaugh plant 1,000 pine trees, each about the size of a pencil. Not all of them will survive. Deer and rabbits destroy a hefty number. Others just don’t take.
And, of course, there are the ugly trees, which almost never sell. These poor rejects have a different fate; they will be turned into homemade Christmas wreaths. When the farm isn’t busy, John Alspaugh or his son churn out wreaths in varying sizes.
The trees don’t require much attention. The Scotch pines have to be planted and pruned, and the land must be mowed. After that, it’s mostly a matter of time and patience. Trees put up for sale are typically between 7 and 10 years old.
When asked why they buy a live tree over an artificial one, customers almost always give the same two answers: the fresh pine tree smell and tradition.
A father and son, both dressed in camouflage, drag their 6-foot tree across the lot. A baby sits on top of her father’s shoulders while the family spreads out across the farm. A father comes out alone in order to bring home a surprise for his family.
John Alspaugh says he doesn’t make a profit off of the trees. It’s this sense of family that motivates him to sell year after year.
“You can see what it means to all the people who come here, to the kids, to the parents, to the grandparents,” he says.
He won’t admit more than that. The Christmas trees might provide him with some sort of intrinsic happiness, but that he does not say.
All he will acknowledge about the farm is that it is his main retirement activity.