Shearing a Christmas tree and playing a guitar have more in common than it might seem. At least, that is what Carol Reidinger says about the large electric clippers hanging from her neck, buzzing somewhat menacingly. With the neck strap and the placement of her hands, it does look like she’s holding a guitar, ready to play.
She swings the clippers up and down lightly and at a slight angle, walking around a Scotch pine as she shapes it into a cone that comes to a nice point on the top. “You try to get one bud on top,” she says. Her husband, Russ Reidinger, works one row over, smiling as he does the same thing.
Carol and Russ Reidinger own Country Traditions farm, about eight miles east of Columbia as you head down Route WW for Millersburg, and every June, they shape their trees. They have 70 acres, seven or eight of which are covered by Christmas trees. Russ Reidinger guesses there must be about 8,500 trees in all. Each and every one must be attended to.
“Scotch pines grow every which way,” Carol Reidinger says. They shape the trees so they will look good when they are eventually cut for sale, but it is critical that this shaping get done in June.
“The new growth has to be trimmed at that time,” Reidinger says. “If you go later than that, the new growth turns woody, gets real hard and won’t develop new buds. And so then the tree won’t grow anymore.”
There are plenty of other hazards as well — insects, fungus, weeds. The Reidingers planted 1,800 trees in March, but they figure that probably only half of those trees will survive to be 10 years old, when they can be cut and sold.
LeRoy Rood, owner of Pea Ridge Forest, on the north side of the river about 10 miles outside of Herman, and president of the Missouri Christmas Tree Association, says there are about four farms registered with the association in Boone County and 49 in the entire state. All are different sizes and grow different types of trees.
As the sun bears down from a cloudless sky, Russ Reidinger lists off the types of trees on their farm: “We grow Scotch pines, white pines ...”
Carol Reidinger interrupts: “What kind is this?” She smiles as she points at a particularly sad little tree with brown needles.
“That’s a dead pine,” Reidinger replies.
In addition to Scotch, white and the occasional dead pine, there are also Austrian pines, Virginia pines and Norwegian spruce, all of which need to be shaped. The Virginia pines require multiple shearings each year.
They haven’t always shaped their trees this way. Russ Reidinger remembers when they first began planting and taking care of trees.
“At that time we were shearing all the trees by hand with hand-shears,” he says. But it quickly became quite a task to shear 1,000 trees, so they bought equipment from a tree farmer who was retiring.
Although techniques have changed, Reidinger’s desire to own a farm never has.
“I can’t tell you when I first wanted to have a tree farm but I was a young kid,” he says.
When he and Carol first got married, they made lists of things they wanted to do in their lifetimes, he says. Carol wrote down “farm,” he says, while he wrote down “tree farm.” When Carol asked him why, he had to admit that he didn’t know.
“To me, it just seemed like a really romantic, neat idea to be a woodsman doing that kind of thing,” he says.
Both Reidingers are biologists and former teachers, and their experiences have informed the way they view their farm.
“A lot of what I do out there is as much as anything with an interest in perpetuating wildlife and, in fact, creating additional wildlife habitat,” he says.
Some trees, like wildlife, just can’t be tamed, but it turns out that’s not a bad thing. “If a tree’s really weird, it becomes a wreath tree,” Reidinger says. “We actually make more money on it than we do a regular tree.”
In some respects, a Christmas tree farm is no different from any other type of farm.
“People have this thing about cutting down Christmas trees but the fact is they’re grown just to do that,” Carol Reidinger says.
But there might just be a little more sentimentality about a crop of trees than a farmer might have for a crop of wheat or corn.
“You know, it’s a mixed feeling with us,” Russ Reidinger says. “Often I’ll stand and look at a tree and it’s one that I’ve really kind of watched as I’ve gone along and I don’t know, it’s not necessarily fatherly, but there’s a certain level of pride in it.”
After they are done with the shaping this month, they will spend July making sure the grass is mowed and the weeds are pulled. In August, the trees will be sprayed with a compound so they will keep their green color. Then, it is time to wait until November, when they will begin to cut the trees for sale. This will be about the sixth year they have sold their trees.
During the holiday season, there will be plenty to worry about. Weather is always a big concern, be it snow or mud, and there are ongoing quandaries tied to it: where customers will park and how many trees they will buy. But none of that seems important right now.
“Summer’s fun,” Russ Reidinger says. “I love it out there. It’s hard work, I get tired, your muscles get hurt a little bit, but Carol tells me, rightfully so, that it’s her favorite time.”
“It’s hard work, but it’s only for a short time,” she adds.
Russ Reidinger nods. “And you feel good.”