By Jennifer Gallus
Christmas trees can’t get any fresher than those grown locally, right under our noses, like the trees that can be found at Crow River Nursery of Howard Lake.
Paul Saunders, owner of Howard Lake’s Crow River Nursery, has been in the tree business for 37 years and says, “There’s only one way out of the tree business toes up.”
“It’s a sickness, but then again, there are worse things,” he added.
In 1990, Paul and his wife, Tamara, bought 43 acres of land just north of Howard Lake. They started by planting 5,000 trees per year, which establishes different sizes and varieties of trees in the future for people to choose from.
It takes eight years for the trees to reach a desirable size, and now the nursery is on its second full rotation of planting.
Trying to forecast which trees will be popular when the trees hit maturity is a challenge. “It’s like trying to hit a moving target eight years down the road,” Saunders explained.
The tree farm has been open to cut-your-own customers for nine years and business has been steadily increasing every year.
“We’re up to about 3,000 trees sold per year between cut-your-own Christmas trees and the people who come in and spade out blue or white spruce,” for nursery stock, Saunders said.
For every Christmas tree cut down, three or four new trees are planted in its place.
Crow River Nursery offers nine different evergreen varieties. The most popular Christmas tree that the nursery sells is the balsam fir, and the second most popular is the fraser fir, Saunders said.
To accommodate a variety of preferences, the nursery offers both shaped trees and balsams that have not been pruned, which gives more of an old fashioned look.
The nursery also has decorated wreaths, door swags, balsam roping, and spruce tops for sale.
Saunders grew up in Brooklyn Center in a family of nine children and lived right across the road from a very large tree farm.
“I’ve been running around tree fields since I was 4 or 5 years old. When I was 20, I said I’d never touch another tree again. Then, I bought this when I was 27,” Saunders laughed,
Another challenge for Saunders is running the tree farm while living in Michigan, for the time being.
“I’m here about 120 days per year, between planting, brushing, and spraying,” he said.
It doesn’t hurt that the Saunders have great neighbors, Dean and Sheri Klinkner, who help them out when needed.
Saunders and his family had moved to Michigan in 1996, for what was thought to be a two-year period due to a promotion Tamara earned. The family decided to stay until their children, Madeline and Ryan, graduate high school.
“We’ve got three years left; then we’re moving back. All our family is here, we can’t wait,” Saunders said.
“We plan to be here a long time,” he added.
Crow River Nursery is proud to be part of the Minnesota Grown network of local farmers and growers and the Minnesota Tree Growers Association.
“Everyone complains about government, but they (Minnesota Department of Agriculture) do a great job promoting the Minnesota Grown brand name,” Saunders said.
The nursery donates trees for the Trees for Troops program, which is a program that delivers real Christmas trees to service members and their families at bases across the US and overseas.
Last year, the program delivered more than 11,000 real Christmas trees to those families.
An eco-friendly choice
For some time, there has been a debate about which kind of tree is more environmentally-friendly, a real tree or an artificial one.
All signs point to real Christmas trees as being the best choice for the environment for many reasons, according to the National Christmas Tree Organization.
While growing, Christmas trees absorb carbon dioxide and other gases and emit oxygen.
Every acre of Christmas trees grown produces the daily oxygen requirement for 18 people. Approximately 500,000 acres of Christmas trees are grown in the US, which supplies enough oxygen for nine million people, according to the National Christmas Tree Organization.
Oftentimes, Christmas trees are grown on soil that doesn’t support other crops. They stabilize soil, protect water supplies, and provide refuge for wildlife.
Real Christmas trees are renewable, while artificial trees are a petroleum-based product manufactured primarily in Chinese factories.
The average family uses an artificial tree for only six to nine years before throwing it away, where it will remain in a landfill for centuries after disposal, according to the National Christmas Tree Organization.