By Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
Chuck and Kathy Parker both grew up in Long Prairie, but never imagined they would own a Christmas tree farm not far from there.
Chuck farmed with his father and after he and Kathy married, they bought the farm and lived there for about 10 years. But at that point, the farm either needed to be updated and expanded or they needed to do something different.
Chuck worked off the farm for a year while Kathy did chores, before the cows were sold. The farm was then sold to an Amish family and the Parkers moved to Sauk Centre, where their three kids grew up.
“Gradually the area around Lily Lake became more built up, with more houses around, and we looked for a place with more room outside,” said Kathy.
The place they found was Cornerstone Pines near Grey Eagle, a Christmas tree farm with mature Balsam fir trees that were 30 years old.
“Since evergreens can be harvested at 8-10 years, and we’ve been here four years, we have not yet harvested a tree that we planted,” Chuck said.
“We are big supporters of Arbor Day and Earth Day. We like to show people how to plant and care for trees,” he said. “And for each tree cut, we plant two or three new ones.”
The average number of trees cut each season is currently about 250. This month, 1,500 seedlings will be planted by hand.
“We found that seedlings planted by machine have a lower survival rate, so we would rather do it by hand,” Chuck said.
“There is a misconception that it is a negative thing to cut a tree and take it into the house,” said Chuck.
“Photosynthesis in plants benefits the environment, but that slows down as an evergreen reaches cutting size. By planting two or three seedlings for each one cut, there is more photosynthesis happening and more benefit for the environment,” he said.
Trees cut at Cornerstone Pines are recycled by using them for mulch. Customers are encouraged to return their trees after Christmas for recycling.
The Parkers stay busy most of the year preparing for the pre-Christmas events. Starting soon after the trees are cut, fields are already being readied for planting.
“We take the most conservative approach possible, and don’t till up the soil,” Chuck said. “The gopher mounds are smoothed out by lightly dragging the field.”
Soil tests are done to determine which species of tree will go in which areas of the farm. There are many low areas where few types of trees grow well.
The majority of trees grown at Cornerstone Pines are Meyer spruce, Balsam fir and Fraser fir.
“But we are adventurous enough to have a lot more varieties,” said Chuck. “We do our own testing to see which do the best for us.”
After the fields are flagged for new seedling locations and then planted, fertilizing, mulching and mowing between trees must be done for the duration of the season.
The 100-acre farm currently grows about 15,000 trees.
“Starting about now and going throughout the summer, cones are harvested from the ground to be used in decorations for sale during the Christmas season,” Kathy said.
Gophers are always a challenge. Kathy focused on trapping them starting the second year and their numbers have been drastically reduced. But that is still an ongoing process.
As members of the Minnesota Christmas Tree Association, the Parkers volunteer at a State Fair booth every year. They also entered two white spruce in competition at the fair last year, and received a first place for the six-foot-and-under class.
The Christmas season begins at Cornerstone Pines in October with a tagging event. On two different days, people can come out to the farm and tag the tree of their choice. It will be reserved for them until after Thanksgiving, when they come back to cut it.
“We really encourage the whole family to come and share in the experience,” said Chuck. “Come, pick out a tree and cut it, go on a 20-minute sleigh ride, drink hot chocolate or cider and visit the gift shop.”
“Families often come and spend hours having snowball fights, taking photos, looking at the Nativity scene, visiting Santa’s workshop and warming up near the bonfire,” he said.
To find out more and to start plans for Christmas, visit www.cornerstonepineschristmastrees.com.