What do a Christmas tree farmer and a barber have in common?
A steady hand with blades and a sharp eye for symmetry. A sympathetic ear and a knack for easy conversation. And in the very best cases, complete and utter dedication to the skill and trade.
Russ Mansmith has it all. The cherub-faced, rosy-cheeked farmer and former barber may have hung up his scissors years ago, but he’s still hard at work with the pruners and the saw.
His family’s cut-your-own Christmas tree farm, Mansmith’s Classic Christmas Trees in Forest Lake, is a must-go holiday excursion for generations of families who have gotten to know Mansmith while picking out the perfect pine. Choosing the right tree out of row upon row of needle-laden green pyramids is a quintessential holiday custom, especially in Minnesota, where abundant evergreens and glittering snow (when we have it) can make our northern land look like the North Pole for much of the year.
The tradition is as special to the farmers as it is to the customers.
Mansmith tried to retire in 2007 but couldn’t let go. “My wife kept telling me to quit planting,” he said, “but it’s in my blood.” At 75, with a hip replacement and two bypasses, he can’t quite believe how good it still feels to be out at work on the farm. Maybe it’s all the oxygen that keeps him young. “Inside of me, I feel like I’m 25,” he said.
He and his wife, Gloria, moved onto the property 50 years ago.
The landscape around his home was bare, so he scattered a few trees, “like Johnny Appleseed.” About six years later, a neighbor asked if he could cut one down for Christmas. Mansmith let him, and so began a new business.
Mansmith is just one player in Minnesota’s Christmas tree industry, which sells more than half a million trees each year.
The industry has seen some troubling times in recent years, with drought and disease hurting crops, and high land prices keeping younger would-be farmers out of the business.
A long incubation period of about six years, and a short window for sales, typically from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve, keep businesses on edge. And there is always the looming fear that customers will turn away from live trees, opting instead for the artificial kind.
Growers say the current season so far has turned out to be solid. With a good amount of rainfall this summer and warm weekends for farm visits, this could shape up to be a record year for local farms.
A magical moment
Mansmith stood one recent Saturday in front of his barn and greeted a steady flow of customers — longtime repeat shoppers and newcomers.
It was the first time Katie Anderson and Eric Melquist and their boys Tristan, 6, and Easton, 2, had visited a Christmas tree farm, a spontaneous stop for the Lino Lakes family.
“I’ve never been given so many choices,” Anderson said as they wove through rows of balsam, white pine and Fraser fir. Tristan let his sense of smell guide him to the right tree — a 7-foot Canaan fir that had just the right spot for his favorite Santa ornament.
Mansmith drove up in his ATV to collect the freshly cut tree. He was giddy to see that the family had found such a good specimen — perfectly symmetrical, full and bushy, tall and proud.
“You’ll never regret getting this tree,” he told them. “It’s a dandy.”
In 1971, Mansmith added 14 acres to his property and decided to make the Christmas tree business official.
Some years were better than others. Tim Mansmith, Russ’ son, remembers planting trees by hand on a cold, sleety spring day. He was around 7 years old.
“There were times I know I slipped in two trees to get it done,” Tim, now 52, recalled. “It was always a lot of work.”
But the work paid off. “When you get that first snow, it’s kind of magical,” Tim said. “You walk through the rows of trees and you think, ‘Wow, this is beautiful.’ ”
Tim eventually started his own farm. After Russ retired, he supplied Tim with trees from his land. Together, they would quiz customers on what they were looking for and steer them to the perfect match.
“It’s a unique business,” Tim said. “When people come up to a Christmas tree farm, 95 percent of the time, they are not going to be grouchy.”
Tim closed his business two years ago. It was too much work to keep up the farm with a full-time job as an engineer.
About 100 farms are members of the Minnesota Christmas Tree Association, but that number used to be higher, said Jan Donelson, a grower and executive director of the association.
“We’re seeing some drop-off, somebody that’s 70 and said, ‘I’m done with this,’ ” said Donelson, who owns Jan’s Christmas Trees east of St. Cloud. “But the industry is strong for those who are there, and for the young individuals looking to make this their future, it’s a huge opportunity. As long as trees are being produced, I don’t see demand fading.”
Russ continued planting after his 2007 retirement and, a few years ago, started his business back up again. Now, he shears, his wife mows, his son-in-law cuts the trees and his 10-year-old granddaughter runs the cash register.
His daughter, Kristen Kralick, said the family wanted him to stop working, but coming back “has given him new life.”
A sign hangs in the apple cider-scented barn and gift shop. It says, “This is a Christmas tree farm. Feel free to breathe deeply.”
Scattered across counters and wooden tables are binders of letters and photos from families who have come to Russ for their trees over the years. People have written him poems about their trees; they have sent him invitations to their grandchildren’s graduations. He chokes up when he thinks about how much this business has shaped his life, and the lives of his customers.
“It’s a tremendous thing,” he said, through tears. “Excuse me. I get emotional over it. I’ll catch my breath here.”