One Tree Farm’s Struggle To Keep Christmas Real
12 months of toil for this one magical moment.
As the farm door bounced shut behind me, the bells on its handle tinkled. As I entered the warm room, I was hit by a wave of fresh pine and a chorus of voices chirping “Merry Christmas!” This must be what Santa’s workshop feels like, I thought.
This wasn’t the North Pole but the Richardson Christmas Tree Farm in Spring Grove, Illinois, a half-hour’s drive west of Chicago.
Above, George Richardson makes homemade donuts.
I met up with Wendy and George, the married couple who are co-owners of the farm. George was hunched over a vat of frying oil, pulling donuts out of the bubbling liquid with hands rough from farm work. He greeted me and in the same breath offered me a fresh apple cider donut.
Wendy took me on a tour of the farm, donuts in hand. As we walked, she introduced me left and right to the other farm workers. I met George’s brother, Robert, and George’s son, Ryan, who are both co-owners of the farm. I also met Evelyn, Margaret, Carol and Jan, all of whom seemed to be related to George and Wendy in one way or another.
It’s truly a family affair at Richardsons. George and Robert inherited the farm from their father, who inherited it from his father, who inherited it from his father?—?and on and on, all the way back to 1840 when the homestead was first founded.
At that time, the farm was just that?—?a farm. They did a little bit of everything, from growing crops to keeping chickens, in order to make a living.
A family affair
The Richardson family has a rule: Even though the children are raised helping on the farm, they’re required to go to college and hold another job before deciding if they want to come back to the homestead for good.
George and all four of his siblings branched out (Get it?) after graduating from college. Robert was one of the first monorail drivers at Disney World in Florida. George stayed closer to home, selling equipment to other farmers in the area.
Above, a fresh pine centerpiece is decorated with an ornate bow at the farm.
In the early 80s both brothers returned to the farm. Suddenly the estate was supporting three families?—?George and Wendy, Robert and his wife and of course George and Robert’s parents. The farm had to expand, and Robert and George’s father had the perfect idea for how to do it: Christmas trees.
Growing a tree
The first spring that George and Robert were back on the farm, the family planted about 1,000 trees. But when they went to check on them in the summer, they couldn’t find even one of their seedlings: They’d been lost among weeds that had sucked all the nutrients from the ground.
The brothers quickly decided to join the Illinois Christmas Tree Association and learned all the tree-growing tricks they needed to outsmart the weeds.
It turns out that growing a tree isn’t as simple as Johnny Appleseed would have us believe. Since large farms like Richardsons’ are growing trees as a crop, it’s a sustainable agricultural process. That means that for every tree that’s cut down, the Richardsons plant 1–3 more in its place?—?which ends up being a lot of work.
These days, the Richardsons don’t do the planting themselves?—?they buy approximately 10,000 saplings annually from an indoor nursery. The saplings are about 4 years old when the Richardsons transfer them to farm, where the young trees adjust to the outdoor soil and continue to grow for another 6–8 years before they’re ready to be cut and sold.
That means each tree is 10–12 years old by the time it gets cut down and covered in tinsel.
Like any crop, Christmas trees require regular maintenance. Since the Richardsons have at least 80,000 trees on the farm’s 540 acres at any given time, they employ a staff of about two dozen people to work year-round.
Throughout the year, the staff checks for weeds and diseases and does lots of mowing to keep insects at bay. They also shear the trees every year to make sure they grow into that classic cone shape customers love.
Back in the kitchen, with more donuts in the fryer, George and Wendy discussed the competition they face from companies that manufacture fake Christmas trees. The couple didn’t seem daunted. “Plenty of people are going to want a real Christmas tree,” George reasoned.
Above, a tree is baled and secured on a family’s car by farm staff.
For every argument in favor of artificial Christmas trees, Wendy had a rebuttal:
- There are no messy fallen needles with fake trees. Don’t you have kids, or pets, or relatives with dirty shoes that you’re vacuuming up after anyway?
- Fake trees are just easier. Unless you’re cleaning your tree every year (Be honest, you’re not) it’s collecting and releasing dust every time you haul it up from the basement.
- Fake trees are better for the environment. Actually, while real trees are 100% recyclable, fake trees will eventually end up in a landfill.
Plus, at the Richardsons’ farm, you cut your own Christmas tree from the field, which is infinitely more satisfying than choosing one from a Home Depot parking lot.
In any case, business at the Richardsons doesn’t seem to be hurting. I visited on a Friday as the team geared up for another big weekend sale. Wendy told me that the previous week they sold 1,000 trees on Saturday and another 800 on Sunday. The farm sells about 7,000 trees every year, the vast majority of which are sold in December.
Above, a farm worker ties a tree to a customer’s car.
The people business
The Richardsons cater their entire experience for the customer: They offer wagon rides, hot chocolate, coffee, fudge, kettle corn, nachos and more to customers. Wendy tells me, after all, the family isn’t just in the tree business?—?they’re also in the people business.
“We see the same people coming every year,” she says as she boxes up donuts for a family thawing out in the barn.
There’s a big Polish family, for example, who come every holiday season without fail: the grandma, the grandpa, their three kids and their young grandchildren. The group brings crockpots of home-cooked food so they can have a meal right on the farm.
“Last year they invited us to sit and eat with them,” Wendy remembered.
The tradition lives on
Before I drove back to Chicago, I took one last look around the barn and realized that everyone working, everyone I spoke to, was cheery and glowing with Christmas spirit. It’s a testament to the feeling of community that the Richardson Christmas Tree Farm has created.
I found myself hoping that the tradition would live on with George’s son Ryan and Ryan’s two little girls, who are now the sixth generation of Richardsons on the farm. With a loyal base of customers all devoted to the age-old Christmas ritual, the Richardsons have cemented their place in the tradition of families throughout Illinois all thanks to the happy energy of Christmas. As Wendy said at least three times during my time at the farm: “Everyone is happy at Christmas, there’s just not a crabby person in sight.”
All photos and videos by Antonio Manaligod for Dose