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COVID helped push a 100-year-old Missouri farm into a Christmas tree frenzy

Luke X. Martin
KCUR 89.3
Sisters-in-law Debbie Hay, left, and Barbara Fulk, outside the heated barn where Fulk Farms sells Christmas tree accessories like ornaments, tree stands and preservative, and garlands. The Platte City, Missouri, family farm planted its first Christmas tree seedlings in 1987.

Fulk Farms has been owned by the same family since 1889, and has sold Christmas trees since the early 1990s. In the last two years, this farm and others in the region have faced new holiday challenges.

Christmas tree seller Stephen Hay has an impressive spiel.

“We have exclusive rights to Queen Elizabeth’s personal Christmas tree farm at Balmoral Castle in Scotland,” Hay said on a recent afternoon as a steady stream of customers flowed by. “They don’t even use regular water, they use Perrier!”

Hay has given variations of this fantastical speech for about 30 years, since Fulk Farms started selling trees just off Missouri Route 92 between Platte City and Weston. He married into a family that's had the farm for six generations.

Their Christmas tree season has always started the day after Thanksgiving. But over the last two years, demand has gone a little haywire.

“Friday morning was a zoo. There was people and cars everywhere,” Brian Fulk said of the day after Thanksgiving. Brian manages the farm with his dad, Dennis Fulk, whose parents own the farm. His great-great-grandparents homesteaded it in 1889.

“It always seemed like the first weekend of December was always our biggest weekend, but now it’s become Thanksgiving weekend,” Brian said. “Last year we only made it two weekends before we were sold out.”

The shift forward was most pronounced last year. Brian suspects it’s because people were desperate for some cheer after weathering months of COVID-19 lockdown.

Luke X. Martin
KCUR 89.3
Brian Fulk, who manages Fulk Farms with his dad, Dennis, guides a freshly cut tree through a netter, which makes it easier to transport.

But the surge meant the best trees sold quickly, and customers who waited didn’t have as many options.

“When they come out here a week before Christmas and the selection’s not very good because it’s been picked over, then next year they decide, ‘We’re coming right after Thanksgiving,’” Brian said, “and it just feeds on itself.”

Like most places in the Kansas City region, the Fulks had to pare back their selection of pre-cut trees. That’s partly due to bad weather around the country, and partly because, according to the National Christmas Tree Association, fewer trees were planted in years past. So, farms pay more for the pre-cut trees they order in, and customers pay more to take them home.

The Fulks, though, still had pre-cut trees available after Thanksgiving weekend — more than can be said for a lot of outfits.

Phil Wegman, president of the Kansas Christmas Tree Growers Association, said live-tree distributors drove a hard bargain this year.

“They said: ‘Number one, we will take on no new customers; … number two, we won't sell you any more trees than you were able to order in the past; … and number three, the price is going to be more expensive,’” Wegman said. And they told him one more thing: “You might even want to consider trying to arrange your own trucking because that's difficult for us to do as well.”

Wegman owns Midland Holiday Pines in Shawnee, Kansas, with his wife Judy. The two sold all their pre-cut trees the first weekend after Thanksgiving.

Wegman also grows trees on his land, giving customers the chance to choose and chop their own. It’s a draw for families, and gives farms a more predictable supply of trees, which take 7-10 years to mature. Cut-your-own trees turned out to be popular, too.

“We closed, as of Sunday. We totally sold out of trees,” Wegman said.

Luke X. Martin
KCUR 89.3
Shoppers peruse the cut-your-own section of Fulk Farms, just off Missouri Route 92 between Platte City and Weston.

A steady flow of shoppers

Back at Fulk Farm, Tony and Ann Owens were enjoying what’s become a holiday tradition.

“I’ve been coming here 10 or 15 years,” Tony said, “me and her, the last few years.”

The Owens aren’t unique. Growers on both sides of the state line said they see the same customers, year after year.

“Back when the kids were little we used to come over here and they used to give us hayrides on the wagon, and give us a saw and we’d go around and … the kids would all take a swat at (a tree) and get one on the ground,” Tony said.

“(We like to) shop locally,” Ann said. “We live out in Easton … so we come out to the next biggest town to spend our money.”

It’s a good business, Brian and his mom, Barbara Fulk, said, and the customers are a joy to be around. But the Fulks only have a handful of seasons left.

“We’ve stopped planting any new trees,” Brian said, pointing to a far corner of the hilly plot. “Once those little ones over there get big, that’s going to be it for us.”

Growing and trimming Christmas trees is tough, time consuming work, he said, and it lasts 10 months a year.

Luke X. Martin
KCUR 89.3
An extended Fulk family photo sits on display in the big red barn. The Fulks first homesteaded the land in 1889.

“That opening weekend is getting to be such a mad house that I’m getting too old,” Barbara said. “So I’m kind of counting the days — I know that sounds awful, but.”

“We had a good run,” Brian chimed in. “And it’s not over yet. We’ve got six or seven more years. But when it’s time, it’s going to be time.”

When that day comes, the farm will continue to focus on the corn and soybeans that have always made up the bulk of their holdings. Until then, it’s full speed ahead.

The Fulks said there’s a strong possibility they will sell out of trees this weekend, meaning those still on the hunt for the perfect yuletide tree would do well to call ahead.

As culture editor, I oversee KCUR’s coverage of race, culture, the arts, food and sports. I work with reporters to make sure our stories reflect the fullest view of the place we call home, so listeners and readers feel primed to explore the places, projects and people who make up a vibrant Kansas City. Email me at luke@kcur.org.
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