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Christmas Grows at Mason Tree Farm

In my many travels that come with this line of work, there are some places that I become aware of and tuck into the back of my mind and think, “You know, that might make for a neat story one day.

In my many travels that come with this line of work, there are some places that I become aware of and tuck into the back of my mind and think, “You know, that might make for a neat story one day.”

The Mason Tree Farm, nestled on some land between Hanley and Kenaston, is one of those places.

It’s hard to ignore the signs for the popular place, which are large and colorful along Highway 15 going east, and it’s the kind of advertising that owner and operators Bob Mason and Cora Greer say works the best.

Upon my arrival to their farm on a bright but crisp afternoon, it soon became clear to me; this is where Christmas is grown. Rows upon rows of trees; Scots pines, balsam firs, white spruces – all of them waiting for a home during the holidays and itching to have presents set underneath them.

And that’s just the tree aspect of the farm itself. I sat down with Bob and Cora in their barn, which has been turned into a type of visitor’s centre over the years. There are tables where kids can sit and work on coloring books, or families can sit and visit with hot chocolate and cookies either before or after they’ve sawed down their own Christmas tree. A table full of recipe books, scratch-made syrups, condiments, cider, honey, and other goodies. A wall dedicated to roughly 300 photographs of the farm’s visitors throughout the years, and those are just the ones on display.

And to think, all of it came to be after a random comment by one of Bob’s relatives almost thirty years ago.

“I’ve always loved trees,” said Bob. “My cousin was up from Michigan in the late 1980’s, and I had planted some pine trees just west of the house to fill up the space, and he asked, ‘Are these Christmas trees?’, and I said no and that I hadn’t planned on using them that way. But he put the idea in my head that maybe I could make money growing trees.”

From there, the idea percolated in Mason’s mind, and by 1990, he and Cora had planted the farm’s first trees, and they started selling them in 1998.

It’s an entrepreneurial idea unlike most farming operations on the prairie landscape, where you typically see crops and pulses being grown, but Cora says it was an extension of Bob’s previous history with tree-planting, and with the operation being very new, it was touch-and-go as far as success went in the beginning.

“If you were driving down the road towards Highway 11, where our land is, you’d see that Bob has planted thousands of trees in shelter belt roads in the field, so he’s been planting trees for years, and this is kind of an extension to that,” she said. “In those days, there wasn’t a Christmas tree farm in Saskatchewan. There were a few people who were a couple years ahead of us, and one of them is still around selling trees, but beyond that, there was nothing. It was kind of learning as you go, make mistakes as you go, and work together with the people who were planning to sell Christmas trees.”

Operating a Christmas tree farm for Bob and Cora also means encouraging others in their own ventures, as it’s not a hugely competitive field.

“People will say, ‘Are you sure you want somebody in Dundurn to start growing trees? They might take your business away!’, but we’ve got more customers than we have trees!” said Cora. “It’s not really a competitive field; our biggest competitors are growers from outside the province who have their trees imported. Ours are far superior because they’re fresh-cut and they’re going to last longer.”

At the farm’s biggest size, Greer estimates that they had around 20,000 trees, and these days, including seedlings, the farm is home to roughly 14,000. These high numbers ensure that Christmas trees will always be growing on the property for years to come. That being said, one of the key things needed in growing these trees is patience; seedlings are babied for a year in the farm’s seedbed to give them time to get stronger before they go out in the field, and from there, it’s around eight to fourteen years before you get the typical six or seven-foot tall Christmas tree.

The work that needs to be done before the public comes out to saw down their family’s tree is more than ample, and Bob and Cora enlist the help of university students who can give the couple four months of their time, as well as high school students from the Hanley and Kenaston areas who come out for the summer months, which is when most of the tree-shaping is done.

Bob and Cora, who’ve been married for over 35 years, were getting ready to open for the year on the day following my visit, and they were anticipating another busy season. Greer says that there are customers who routinely show up on the first day as soon as the farm is open to the public, and Bob mentioned that three quarters of the farm’s tree business is done on the weekends. But it isn’t a mad rush where everybody comes and picks out all the best trees, as there is the odd person who comes in late, or even an entire family who makes a stop at the farm to grab a tree before heading down to the cottage at Lake Diefenbaker.

When selecting a Christmas tree, Bob and Cora have learned that everybody is different. What some may see as an imperfect tree may be just the one that gets picked, owing to the adage that you can’t judge a book by its cover.

Of course, being the farmers of real Christmas trees, the couple is adamant that ‘going fresh’ over a store-bought plastic tree is the way to go, including the environmental benefits.

“This one is going to bio-degrade and go back into the soil in one way or another,” said Cora, gesturing to the decorated tree in the barn. “It’s not going to be sitting in a landfill when it’s finished after being used for years and years. It’s also been out in the environment and cleaning the air. I think it works out to one tree cleans the air for 18 people a year.”

Once you get your tree home after cutting it down, proper maintenance is how you make it last for the duration of the holidays.

“The key is fresh cut, so if you’re not putting it up right away, take a quarter inch off the bottom,” said Cora. “What happens is it starts to seal over. It’s like when you cut your finger and get a scab on it, that’s the same thing with a tree; it scabs over. So you have to give it a fresh cut so it can drink, and make sure you never run out of water. No heat either.”

Cora says the biggest challenge in this line of work is the unpredictability of the weather system, which brings its own set of problems, while Bob says new tree growers don’t take into account the other elements in the dirt that can make or break how effective your soil is for growing.

“Climate is probably the biggest thing,” she said. “We’ve never had pests in our trees until the last couple of years because it’s been this warming environment where we don’t have colder winters that kill off pests that are starting to come in. That may be a bigger concern if it continues to keep warming.”

“I think one of the biggest problems that beginning growers have is weed competition,” added Bob. “Little baby trees just cannot compete very well with the weeds for moisture or nutrients, or even sunlight if the weeds get big enough. That puts a lot of young growers out of business because they don’t think of that, keeping the weeds under control. There are chemicals that can do that, and we don’t use them here, as we use plastic mulch in the trees, as well as flax straw as mulch.”

Cora says that a family’s experience at the farm varies from group to group; a couple of guys might just spend five or ten minutes out in the field before they come back with a tree, or entire families will make a day of it.

“For most people, it’s all about the hunt,” said Cora. “They drive up and down the roads, and it’s all, ‘This one! Oh no, THIS one!’ They come in here when they arrive, and we give them a map that is color-coded that shows where the pines, balsams and firs are. A lot of people just park over here and walk through the tree field, especially when it’s a nice day. At a busy time, I think families say, ‘OK, we’re gonna go out and this is going to be family time and we’re gonna have fun’.”

For Greer, it’s the busy part of the season that she enjoys, while Mason is more into the growing and nurturing part of the tree-growing process behind the scenes.

“I prefer the growing of the trees myself,” said Bob. “I do like selling them, but in all honesty, I’m getting tired of it. There’s also the procedure of getting ready to sell them, and doing things like changing all our signs, doing all the printing, getting things ready around here.”

“Right now, selling the trees,” said Cora, on the best part of running the tree farm. “People are happy when they come, and it’s a good time of the year. We get to know our customers, and sometimes we’ll sit down and have hot chocolate together, and get to know each other and our families.”

After learning of the tree farm’s background and history, Bob took me on a walking tour of the property, and his knowledge on all the little intricacies of what makes a certain tree stand out, whether it’s a balsam fir or a white spruce, reaffirms that he’s an expert on what people may want to look for when they visit the farm to pick out which tree will be standing up in their homes. And after taking a stroll around the seemingly-endless rows of hundreds of trees, I can honestly tell you that the air never smelled cleaner or fresher. It’s the smell – and the sight – of Christmas itself.

Yes, this is indeed the kind of place that one or an entire family should commit at least an hour or two to fully experience. If nothing else, even if you leave without a tree, the Mason Christmas Tree Farm is unlike almost any other place on the rural Saskatchewan landscape, and you end up leaving the farm feeling even more excited about the oncoming holiday season.