Fulk’s Tree Farm celebrates 30 years of Christmas tradition
It’s an unseasonably sunny day in early December as two men roam the hillside near Weston, bow saws in their hands and serious business on their minds. Roger Burd sees something and stops in his tracks. His friend Alex DiDonato does likewise.
“Did you find a TV side?” Alex asks. He casts an appraising eye to the straightness and fullness of the Scotch pine before him. “You might have picked it, Paul Bunyan.”
Alex and Roger are on their annual hunt for the perfect Christmas tree. For Alex, the visit is a way to support local business and continue a family tradition 17 years running.
“My mom started that tradition. It wasn’t quite like the Griswolds, but sometimes like that,” he says with a wistful laugh. He turns his attention back to Roger and the tree. “That might be it, Rog. Somebody didn’t like it, but that might be it.”
It’s a phrase that goes through the mind of every visitor to Fulk’s Tree Farm, which over the past 30 years has become part of the fresh-cut tradition for many families in northwest Missouri.
“It’s fun to see the faces that have been here several times,” owner Dennis Fulk says. “We’ve been doing it long enough we’ve seen people who were kids when they first came here bring their own kids.”
The Platte-Clay Electric Cooperative member and director doesn’t remember ever having an artificial tree for the holidays. In fact, he was driving his family to a Christmas tree farm about an hour away from home when he first thought of the business idea. His own farm, owned by the family since 1884, was no stranger to row crops, but there were 25 hilly acres that didn’t lend themselves to corn or soybeans. The drainage, however, made them perfect for naturally growing pine trees. The Fulks planted their first trees in 1987 when Dennis’ son, Brian, was 10 years old. They sold their first trees in 1992 and never looked back.
The breathtaking view and convenient location combined to draw crowds from Kansas City north to St. Joseph and Atchison County and from across the river in Leavenworth, Kansas. Business grew steadily, and over the last 15 years the family has regularly sold around 1,200 trees each year. One family, however, always has first dibs: Brian’s grandparents, Robert and Earlene, who still live on the Century Farm.
“They have to put up with it for a month, so they get first choice,” Brian says with a laugh.
Come rain, snow, sun or any weather in between, the first weekend after Thanksgiving is the farm’s busiest time, with perhaps one-third of the whole season’s sales coming on Black Friday. On that day, families take to the pasture — saws and cameras in hand, smiles on faces — all in search of the perfect tree.
It’s a tradition of another kind for the extended Fulk family, who, along with high school and college helpers, shake, trim, drill and net trees as fast as they are able. Dennis and Brian estimate 400 trees went home on the first day of the season in 2019 — roughly one tree every minute they were open for business. It’s a brisk pace, but the Fulks are all smiles.
“It’s one of those businesses where everyone is in a good mood when they come out,” Dennis says. “It’s a good experience, even when we’re busy.”
And busy they stay. Whoever gets the glory of the last saw stroke on the tree may appear to be doing all the work, but it’s the culmination of years of effort on the Fulks’ part to keep inventory looking sharp. The trees, Scotch and white pines ordered as pencil-sized saplings from a farm in Michigan, are planted almost as soon as their predecessors are cut. More than 800 trees are planted per acre, and each year’s worth is cut on a roughly 10-year rotation. Along the way, the family has learned as much as they can about the business from information dispensed by the University of Missouri Extension and workshops put on by the Missouri Christmas Tree Association.
“There was a learning process, for sure,” Brian says, adding that trimming every tree each summer is the most time-consuming part of the process. “You get them started out right when they’re still small and it’s easier to keep them in the right shape as they get bigger.”
Fraser, balsam and Douglas firs, which don’t fare well in Missouri’s sometimes brutal summers, are trucked in from Michigan and Wisconsin. Choose-and-cut pines run $7 per foot while the firs are $10 per foot. Across all varieties, the 10-foot-plus trees always are the first to be felled, netted and tied to the tops of cars. But even the Charlie Brown trees find a happy home as Derby Blair “DB” Gutshall and her mother, Meredith, can attest. Along with grandmother Lucinda Taylor the trio are all smiles as they bring their finds back across the field.
As far as taking care of the new living room centerpiece, the Fulks have some tips: Give the tree hot tap water the first time you fill the stand to soften it up. Afterwards, make sure to keep water in the stand and the tree away from hot, dry air or vents to keep it from drying out and falling apart. The Fulks also can pre-drill the base to help it better absorb water once it’s set up at home.
If you need help decorating your tree, Fulk’s Tree Farm has that department covered, too. The gift shop sells ornaments along with stands, wreathes and other greenery. Although the farm has had to make some adjustments this year for masks and social distancing, the features of a day at the farm such as wagon rides, writing letters to Santa and hot cocoa for the kids were all a standard offering of the season in pre-COVID-19 times.
Maybe it’s the sound of a holiday favorite by Bing Crosby drifting across the farm from the barn, the smell of fresh pine trees on the air or the warmth of a family excursion in the outdoors, but the whole experience has the nostalgic feel of an old-time Christmas, even if it’s everyone’s first live tree. Dennis thinks that may be the reason people keep coming back, year after year.
“When they come out here, it’s about the experience as much as the tree — maybe more,” Dennis says with a smile. “It’s the whole image of going to a farm and cutting down their own tree. People can buy a live tree, but it doesn’t get fresher than the one they cut themselves.”