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The last Christmas: Love Lake Trees to close

Hidden from view along a country lane north of Baxter is a humble meadow dotted with young evergreens. But for many lakes area families, it's so much more than that. It's a patch of land that's witnessed the unbridled joy of children for two gene...

Susan and Allen Schmidt, owners of Love Lake Christmas Trees, stand in front of a blue spruce Sunday, Dec. 2 -- the first tree they planted 32 years ago. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
Susan and Allen Schmidt, owners of Love Lake Christmas Trees, stand in front of a blue spruce Sunday, Dec. 2 -- the first tree they planted 32 years ago. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Hidden from view along a country lane north of Baxter is a humble meadow dotted with young evergreens.

But for many lakes area families, it's so much more than that. It's a patch of land that's witnessed the unbridled joy of children for two generations, offered countless neighborhood teens first-time job experiences as "elves" and provided thousands of Christmases with the season's most cherished symbol-the tree. And this December will be its last.

"I used to say, somebody would drive in here and they'd be all grumpy," said Susan Schmidt, co-owner of Christmas tree farm Love Lake Trees. "And then they'd leave with a big smile on their face."

Susan and husband Allen Schmidt have been preparing for the farm's closing chapters-they quit planting new firs, spruces and pines two years ago, and are sharing the news with regular customers who've come for this year's tree. Age-they're both in their early 70s-and the call of warm weather are factors in the Schmidts' decision to end the farm's run, but two consecutive summers of violent storms hastened its exit.

The July 2016 supercell thunderstorm that ravaged the Gull Lake area blazed through the Schmidts' property, too, downing thousands of oaks and damaging their home. A storm with near-equal ferocity a year later piled on, and the couple's insurance rate rose dramatically, they said.

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"We couldn't see the neighbor's houses (before the storms)," Susan said. "So that's why our insurance went sky-high. It's not the Christmas trees. We've never had an incident with the trees or elves."

Having transitioned to importing pre-cut trees from a Grand Rapids tree farm and dwindling the cut-your-own supply, the Schmidts saw the books just weren't adding up.

"When you're buying most of the trees you're selling now, it doesn't make sense, because we'd never sell enough," Allen said.

Love of trees is lifelong

Love Lake Trees sold its first hand-raised trees in 1996, but its roots extend much further. Susan began learning the art of Christmas tree care from her father at age 5 on the family's Grand Rapids tree farm.

Those skills re-emerged soon after Susan and Allen purchased their Love Lake Road property in 1984. The couple saw the potential in the open field near their home, and in 1986, planted the first batch of trees. It took a decade for those to reach a desirable height, but those 10 years were not restful. Although most people think of Christmas trees during the last month of the year, the Schmidts spend time caring for them year-round.

"The only month we don't work on the trees is March," Susan said. "And then we're doing taxes, and getting ready to plant, and then shearing and getting trees ready to sell, going up to Grand Rapids to pick out trees. ... He mows, I trim."

"Some people, they think that a tree is expensive," Allen said. "But they don't realize that somebody has probably been up close and personal to that tree, every tree in the field, maybe two to three times in a year. ... She talks to every one of them."

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Daughter Katie Schmidt, who collects payments and manages receipts at the farm, said her parents came from hardy stock and are some of the hardest working people she knows.

"It was a pretty incredible way to be raised, for me and my sister (Elin), as well," Katie wrote in an email. "We spent our childhoods working in the trees, just as my mom and her siblings did, before us. I am forever thankful for the work ethic they have instilled in me."

It isn't only their own children who've benefited from the Schmidts' dedication. From the beginning, the farm's employed area teens as "elves" each season. The elves help customers select their trees, cut them down and load them for the trip home.

"I've gone through the whole neighborhood with elves. Now they're coming back and bringing me their little babies," Susan said. "I always would hire my elves when they're standing there with Mom or Dad, by their smile and their blabber."

The inviting atmosphere and connection to the community made Love Lake Trees a destination for documenting people's other life milestones.

"We've had engagements out here, we've had a lot of wedding photos taken out here," Allen said. "They're sorry to see us go. It's been a fun run for us, too. We enjoy the people."

A small part of themselves

It's a bittersweet ending for her parents, Katie said-while they're looking forward to a more relaxing retirement, they've also left a little of themselves out in that meadow.

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"My mom knows every tree in that field," Katie wrote. "She can look at a tree going home with a family, and tell you exactly where it came from. She probably even has a little anecdote to go along with it. I have a feeling this will impact them more than they even know. They have given a small part of themselves to each of their trees, so that families can have they best experience possible."

"... I know they will miss their customers, too. Some have been with them since the very beginning. The customers are, after all, the entire reason for them doing this for as long as they have. ... I know they thank them all, from the bottom of the hearts, for the decades of patronage."

When the last tree finds its new home this month, the Schmidts have much to look forward to: walks in the woods, summers on the lake, a warmer climate in the wintertime and enjoying time with grandchildren. But they will still be found among their trees.

"He has to do the ladder work now, because I can only go up three steps," Susan said. "But that's OK. I have little trees. I'm still going to trim them."

A tree farm trend?

The Schmidts aren't the only local tree farmers contemplating the future.

Forty-two miles south near Pierz, John Blissenbach of JB Tree Farm isn't sure how much longer his operation will continue, either. At 76, he's already 11 years past his tentative retirement date after 45 years of tending to his crop. Following the death of his wife Patricia in September, Blissenbach said he began thinking more seriously about trading raising Christmas trees for picking shells on a Florida beach.

His son Jonathan and daughter-in-law Rebecca might take over the business-they purchased part of the farm five years ago-but, they might not.

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"Right now, it's kind of up in the air," Blissenbach said.

For now, Blissenbach will continue to battle the deer flies and mosquitoes in the summer to prune buds. He'll watch the sunrise from the field each morning, cutting down trees for the nearly 300 customers who will visit the farm this season. But, he said, he suspects he's not the only tree farmer near the end of these rituals.

"It doesn't seem like there is any young people taking over," Blissenbach said.

Are the Schmidt and Blissenbach families part of a larger trend?

Danielle Daugaard is the marketing director for Minnesota Grown, a Minnesota Department of Agriculture directory program helping people connect with growers in the state who sell directly to consumers. Daugaard said it doesn't appear the lakes area is a bellwether for a cascade of closures-historic data on Christmas tree farms shows it to be a very stable farming category.

"There isn't any trend that we have observed or heard about as far as Christmas tree growers go," Daugaard said.

In fact, farmers she's spoken with this season told her business is great, and shortages customers are experiencing on the East Coast are not happening in Minnesota.

"It's actually been a very good season," Daugaard said. "Very warm-snowy but warm-and lots of customers are coming out and enjoying their visit."

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Where will area residents wanting the full local farmer experience go, should JB Farms follow Love Lake Trees' path?

There is one other tree farm in the area, Widman's Tree Farm northeast of Pine River. Paul Widman said his cut-your-own farm sells trees for $30 each, focusing primarily on big, tall trees ranging from 8 to 20-plus feet tall. The property he owns was a Christmas tree farm previously, and Widman said he decided to sell what was left. The trees are not shaped and grow naturally, and he said he doesn't plant, although new, smaller trees emerge from stumps and roots.

In its directory, Minnesota Grown lists a few other farms in reasonable driving distance: Cornerstone Pines in Grey Eagle, Hinkemeyer Tree Farm in Rice, and Wee Trees in Royalton.

Another option is to head to a state or national forest, where chopping down trees for Christmas or harvesting boughs is allowed with a permit.

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