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It’s a family affair

Local family shares ins and outs of running a tree farm

 

CLARKS GROVE — The Tennesons have a big holiday coming up. The day after Thanksgiving, shoppers will descend on retail deals across the nation.

They will also descend on the Tennesons’ tree farm for the Black Friday opening.

“We’re green here,” John Tenneson said.

“Yup,” his wife, Jaime Tenneson, said. “Green Friday.”

In that first weekend, The Evergreens tree farm outside of Clarks Grove will peddle approximately half of all tree sales for the year, John Tenneson said. The first weekend of December will amount to another 25% of total sales, and the last quarter of the business will spread itself out over the month of December.

During the Christmas season, volunteers and family members — including the Tennesons’ eight boys, some of whom will be inside watching their little brothers — greet people at the gate, tell people where to get their saws, point out off-limit trees, shake trees, manage the refreshment table, drive the hay wagon and help with the cash register.

But this is only the visible work that gets done at The Evergreens. For the Tennesons, Christmas is a year-long thought, and when the day has passed, they are preparing to do it all over again.

 

They all pitch in

After Christmas, there are three months of quiet, Jaime Tenneson said. They watch their trees for damage from deer, who like soft needles.

But as soon as the snow melts in the spring, 800 stumps sit as markers of the last season. They use a machine to grind the stumps in a several-week process. 

When that’s done, Jaime Tenneson said, the fir trees start to grow their cones. These cones have to be removed before they turn crumbly, get sticky and make a mess. Furthermore, she said, the trees grow better if they are de-coned.

“We de-cone for quite a while, because there’s a lot of fir trees and a lot of cones,” Jaime Tenneson said.

Around the same time, they will spray the trees for insects.

The farm is about 40 acres. Approximately 20 of those acres have Christmas trees on them, but there are still a lot of empty spaces. In its heyday, the farm would have had close to 12,000 trees, John Tenneson said. Now, there are between 3,000 and 4,000. The Tennesons are working their way back up, supplementing in the intervening five to six years with pre-cut trees out of Cambridge.

This year, they put in about 1,600 small trees at the end of April and beginning of May, Jaime Tenneson said. The Evergreens offers a variety of firs, pines and spruce.

After planting, the mowing starts.

In June, the pine-shearing starts. The farm offers Norway, white and Scotch pines, and the trees only have a certain amount of time between new growth and the hardening that makes them too difficult to shear. That window of time is about one month, Jaime Tenneson said.

“That’s how you keep them looking like a Christmas tree rather than a wild bush,” she said.

Throughout the summer, there are other odd jobs. The family will cut out dead trees and they will hand-weed smaller trees to avoid damaging them with machinery. Jaime Tenneson, a former volunteer naturalist in Faribault, also leads field trip groups from schools, 4-H and the Scouts.

Their boys, seven of whom are old enough to help in some way, all pitch in, John Tenneson said. They trap pocket gophers and shoot ground squirrels who eat the roots of trees. They fill in gopher holes, do some of the mowing, stump-grinding, planting, pruning and a lot of the de-coning.

“It ends up being throw the pine cones at each other,” John Tenneson said.

For the boys, work around the tree farm is many things: a game (fill a bucket with cones and drop them down the slide on top of someone), a way to burn off energy, an incentive (weed 10 trees each and then we can run to the park, mom says) a punishment or simply family time. If Mom and Dad are out there weeding, John Tenneson said, “all of a sudden, everyone wants to help.”

John and Jaime Tenneson are outside among the trees pretty much every single day, Jaime Tenneson said. 

This is what some people don’t understand when they come out to purchase a tree, John Tenneson said. Their purchase price is $10 a foot with a minimum set at five feet.

“Well, that tree’s 5 to 7 years old,” he said. “I mean, we have weeded it, trimmed it, mowed around it, sprayed it — you know and in the case of the pines, we’ve painted it — every year for five years.”

So far, they’ve painted them green, though John Tenneson said he talked to a peer who saw success painting some purple during last year’s Vikings mania.

Pine trees drop their needles every year and grow new ones, John Tenneson said. By the time Christmas comes around, the needles can be faded or yellow, and the trees don’t look quite as nice as the firs.

“You paint them, and it keeps that nice green color,” he said.

This is an October chore. The paint goes into a chemical tank and is sprayed on airbrush style. It dries and stays.

“Painting trees,” John Tenneson said. “Who would have thought?”

He leaves some that have retained a good color unpainted.

“We’ve got a few people that want wild ones,” he said, referencing trees akin to that featured in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” “… They get the ugliest, most beat-up tree that we have.”

For those who want taller trees — anything from 10 to 14 feet — the Tennesons have needed to outsource as well. If customers let them know ahead of time, they will drive to pick up a larger tree and deliver it to the family’s home, John Tenneson said.

Starting in November, customers can come to the tree farm for more than trees. Jaime Tenneson said she goes out almost every day to collect greens, which she sells throughout the season for porch pots and window boxes. Nov. 1 is also the start of wreath-making classes Jaime Tenneson offers, which she said have taken off.

 

‘We work here to live here’

Before taking over the Christmas tree farm, John Tenneson ran an automotive shop. For everything, he had to ask himself, “Is that profitable? Does that cash flow?”

When he looks at the tree farm, it’s a little different. 

What you’re making per tree per year, “you can’t look at it like that,” John Tenneson said. 

The tree farm makes the payment for the place, Jaime Tenneson said. It also put their family back on the farm that, with his children growing up there, has been home to five generations of his family, John Tenneson said.

“We work here to live here,” he said. “That’s what makes it all possible to stay here is the trees and the income from that.”

It has been more work than they both expected, especially after an accident this winter put him out of commission and left his then-pregnant wife to shoulder much of the outside work while John Tenneson became more involved in his childrens’ homeschooling.

“It was pretty tough,” he said.

But in addition to recovery, he is now focusing on making the tree farm and Clarks Grove Golf Course, which the Tenneson family also took over in 2018, sustainable so his family can be involved in every aspect — at every age — in both places, he said. The tree farm has been a place for his family to grow, to learn valuable skills and to believe that work is good and fun.

And The Evergreens is different from his automotive shop in another way: When people go to the mechanic, it’s usually not where they wish they were. People want to be at a tree farm, he said.��

A tree farm is a happy place. 

 

About Sarah Kocher

Sarah covers education and arts and culture for the Tribune.

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