Tree hunting

Farmers in thick of selling season
Sunday, December 7, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:02 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 1, 2008

A narrow strip of woods opens up to reveal a log barn with a red tin roof. A patch of miniature trees sits near a homemade sign that reads: “Charlie Brown Trees, $5.” Green, bushy wreaths, each with a rosy red bow attached, hang on the porch.

The quiet setting, transformed into a flurry of activity on weekends, is Timber View Tree Farm, a 30-acre Christmas tree farm in Hartsburg owned by Daryll and Mary Lou Raitt.

Started almost 30 years ago as a side business, Timber View is now equal parts hobby and full-time job for Daryll Raitt, a retired economist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“It’s just a matter of what you want to do,” Raitt said. “Some people like to play golf and I’d rather be over here and messing with the trees.”

Raitt is among a handful of mid-Missouri retirees who have turned to Christmas tree farming, either as a hobby or a source of extra income — or both.

Bob Daly started planting Scotch pines in 1982, after retiring from Shelter Insurance. Six years later, he opened Hilltop Christmas Tree Farms, north of Columbia off Highway 763 on Farrar Road.

“I had the land and some equipment,” Daly said. “I was raised on a farm. I just enjoyed it.”

Growing Christmas trees can be a complicated process. John Alspaugh, a retired MU professor and owner of Hinkson Creek Farm, on Mexico Gravel Road in northeast Columbia, said most kinds of Christmas trees grow slowly for the first couple of years. And, he said, it is not uncommon for tree farmers to lose up to one-fourth of their crop.

“The hardest part is getting them started,” Alspaugh said. “And then shaping them. Most of the trees people cut are 8 to 10-years-old.”

Mary Lou Raitt said her husband, with help from the couple’s children, grandchildren and a few hired hands, usually starts shaping their trees the second week in June. The process can take up to six weeks. When the selling season arrives, the Raitt’s grandchildren can be seen driving the tractors and running the store, while their daughter greets customers, camera in hand, to take family pictures, which they hang on a bulletin board in their shop.

While the Raitts have turned their retirement activity into a family project, Russ Reidinger, owner of Country Traditions Farms, 9500 Highway WW, is just getting started.

“It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do from the time that I was quite young,” said Reidinger, who will retire in January.

Reidinger, who opened Country Traditions three years ago, learned how to cultivate Christmas trees from books. He also joined both the national and state Christmas Tree Association, a group of owners and tree-farming enthusiasts.

While most families begin searching in earnest for a Christmas tree in December, Reidinger said the selection is at its absolute best the day after Thanksgiving, which is when he and other tree farmers usually open for business.

“The early birds get the best trees,” said Alspaugh, who usually has a line of customers the day after Thanksgiving. “They really do.”

What makes a perfect Christmas tree? That depends, Albaugh said. There are as many ideals for the “perfect” Christmas tree as there are people to buy them, he said.

“People do not agree on what’s a good tree,” Alspaugh said. “Everybody has their own idea about where am I going to put it, how big do I want it and what kind of decorations do I have. People clearly do not agree on what they consider to be a real nice tree.”

But, for Mary Lou Raitt, helping someone find the ideal Christmas tree is the best part of owning a tree farm. It’s also a great way to get in the Christmas spirit, she said.

“It’s just a happy time of year,” Raitt said. “And I love seeing the new families come out. They’re so enthusiastic.”

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