When Krueger’s Christmas Tree Farm is described as a family operation, it’s usually referring to the fact it’s now into its fourth generation. And on busy Saturday afternoons at this time of year, all four generations often are on duty.

But to the Kruegers, “family” means a lot more.

It starts with the crew, some of whom have worked every holiday season for decades. While technically they are employees, the Kruegers tend to think of them as part of the brood, even going so far as to make sure they eat properly.

“We feed them,” said Neil Krueger, part of generation No. 2. “They’re working outside, so we want to make sure they get a hot meal. We feed them in shifts in our dining room,” which can mean serving upward of 50 meals.

And the Krueger family also includes the trees.

Neil’s wife, Deb, calls the seedlings they plant each spring “our babies.” And while most tree farms track their trees with serial numbers, the Kruegers name theirs. This year, for instance, Bart Starr and Todd Rundgren were available.

“Some people will choose one tree over another because they like the name,” she said.

The rest of the family are the customers, many of whom have made an annual visit to the farm a tradition, either to cut their own tree or to pick out one of the pre-cut ones.

“We get to know each other,” Deb said. “I almost always wear snowflake earrings, but one day last week, I didn’t have them on, and people started asking me where they were.”

While at the University of Minnesota, Deb considered becoming an Episcopal priest. Instead, she has made the tree farm her unique ministry, which starts with a warm welcome.

“We want everyone to feel good,” she said. “We sell trees, but we give a lot of love.”

There are the usual accoutrements one expects at a Christmas tree farm: wagon rides, bonfires, visits with Santa and hot cider, but no petting zoo. (“I’m not going to ask an animal to sit out in the cold all day,” Deb said.)

There’s also a tepee, “which might seem a little unusual,” John Krueger conceded.

As with many things Krueger, there’s a story behind it:

After moving their operation from Stillwater to Lake Elmo in the early 1980s, they were told by a neighbor that local legend had it that an out-of-the-way corner of woods not used for farming held the remnants of an Indian burial mound.

“It really wasn’t much of a mound anymore,” Deb said. “But we called the Minnesota Historical Society, and a whole bunch of people came out and walked around. They authenticated it as having been an Indian village,” most likely Dakota or Ojibwe. They also found evidence of a second burial mound.

With her spiritual background, Deb knew the significance of the discovery.

“It’s a very sacred space,” she said. “We want to honor that.” In addition to not planting trees near the mounds, on weekends, a history teacher who’s a friend of the family is stationed in the tepee to give background information.

An inauspicious start

The tree farm was started by Al and Elaine Krueger — here comes another family story — by happenstance.

In the 1960s, they were farming near Stillwater, where they faced erosion problems. They planted fir trees in hopes of stabilizing the soil. The trees eventually grew so thick that they needed to be thinned out. The Kruegers started cutting them down and giving them to friends for Christmas trees. Soon the friends’ neighbors were showing up at the farm to ask if they could buy a tree.

The business continued to grow through the 1970s to the point that the farm ran out of room. In the early 1980s, Neil, their oldest son, and Deb decided to start a second tree farm just south of Hwy. 36 in Lake Elmo.

A decade later, Al, who was facing health issues, and Elaine, who still shows up occasionally in the role of a “consultant,” turned the operation over to Neil and Deb, who now run it with their offspring, John and Amy, with help from grandchildren ranging in age from 5 to 18.

Think 5 is too young to be involved in tree farming? John was 4 when he started.

“We never pushed them into it,” Neil insisted. Nor was Neil pushed by his parents. Having grown up on a tree farm, “it’s what I knew,” Neil said.

Deb, however, had to make a choice.

“When we got married, Neil said, ‘You don’t have to do this,’ ” she recalled. “Well, I’d always wanted to be a priest or a farmer, so I agreed to jump in.”

It hasn’t always been joy-filled. A drought wiped out all the seedlings planted the first three years in the Lake Elmo location. Neil was working full time at Andersen Windows, while Deb watched the trees shrivel right in front of her eyes.

“There was nothing I could do to keep them alive,” she said. “I know this will sound hokey to some people, but one day I was out on the tractor and I saw a white snowy owl sitting on one of the trees. In the Indian culture, that’s a sign of perseverance. And it sat there for three days.”

They never considered giving up. Instead, they replanted. A dozen years later, the first crop was mature enough to harvest, which created another unexpected wrinkle: They had poured so much emotional and physical energy into those first trees that it pained them to saw them down.

“I said, ‘Oh, no! They’re my babies,’ ” Deb said.

Added Neil: “We knew the trees were going to be harvested, but it was a mind-set we’d gotten into.”

John still slips into that mind-set, he admitted. “Sometimes you look at a really good tree and feel a little regret” that it’s going to be cut down, he said. “But you remind yourself that there’s a next generation of trees that will be equally good.”

Good vibes

In addition to a lot of trees — 30,000 of them, about 10% of which are harvested each year — the farm abounds in good karma.

“We want this place to be full of joy,” Deb said. “Not everyone is happy during the holidays, but when they come here, they’re happy.”

They take pride in the number of non-Christians who come to the farm.

“We are a little different here,” she said. “We have friends (read: customers and employees) who are Jewish, Hindu, Tibetan, Buddhist. ... They all know they are welcome here. That’s another part of Christmas. It’s not just about trees.”

The workers who help carry trees and tie them to cars aren’t allowed to accept tips. But there is a jar where appreciative customers can drop a dollar or two. The money goes to nonprofits, and a list of the causes that have benefited over the years is posted on a wall behind the cash register. It’s a long list.

The Kruegers also give trees to local organizations that distribute them to people who can’t afford to buy one.

“Everyone who wants a tree gets a tree,” Deb said emphatically.

During the offseason, school groups visit the farm.

“Education about trees is very important,” Deb said.

“They are fresh-air factories,” her husband added. “One acre of trees produces enough oxygen for 18 people to breathe.”

John is very active in both the Minnesota Christmas Tree Association and Minnesota Grown, an organization that promotes all forms of agriculture. And, along with his father, he’s focused on reducing the use of chemicals.

“We’re not to the point of being [certified] organic, but we’re getting there,” he said.

The weeks leading up to Christmas turn into a marathon of long days. Deb is struggling to move around this year as she recovers from knee surgery, but you wouldn’t know it from the warm way she greets the farm’s clientele.

“When the season is over, I want to know that we’ve done the most joyful job we can,” she said.