HOLLANSBURG – Many years ago, families went out, they picked a live tree, and they cut it down. Now, families can go to any big box or hardware store and get a pre-cut tree, but they’re not getting that family experience, said Allen and Carmen Howell, owners of The Frosty Outpost Christmas Tree Farm in Darke County.
The Howells, originally from Darke County, decided to move back in the mid-90s because Allen wanted a change from his high-stress job and the busy lifestyle of the Florida suburbs, he said.
“I just kind of dreamed of a more simple life; when the opportunity came, we moved back to Darke County and bought these five acres off my in-laws. It was originally just fields, like everything else around here,” he said. “It was kind of just my dream to have an old-fashion operation. I didn’t have enough land to plant beans and corn. It was just a good idea.”
The Howells planted their first 500 blue spruce trees in 1998, but since that was a drought year, they only ended up with two trees from that crop, they said.
“Each year we kept planting, and some finally took hold. It takes on average about eight years to grow a tree to a six foot height,” Howell remarked.
The family was finally able to begin selling trees in 2007, he said. Compared to most Christmas tree farms, the Howells have a small operation – just five acres compared to many larger tree farms who have 30 or more acres, he stated. Larger operations are closer to big cities, however, which makes them more sustainable, Howell commented. The Howells currently have between 2,000 and 2,500 trees, they said.
Drought wasn’t just a problem in 1998, however. Beginning in 2011 the Howells experienced the woes of drought, they said, losing couple dozen trees in 2011, and lost nearly all the saplings planted in 2012.
“Rabbits like to chew them off, too, so I had to fight the drought and the rabbits,” Howell stated. “Weather is still my biggest enemy, though.”
These types of challenges are the big ones for the tree farmers, but June is a tough month for Allen as well, he said, because he has to go around to each tree and machete it into a conical shape.
“The first few years it was easy because they were small and there weren’t a lot of them, but as the years progressed and they started getting bigger and getting more of them, it’s just a lot of hard work,” Howell commented. “My arm feels like it’s about ready to fall off by the end of June. Every season there’s always something for me to do: in the spring I have to plant and spray for weeds around the trees, and mowing during the summer. I fertilize in the fall; every tree will get fertilized.”
All of that work and the family only sells between 50 and 100 trees each year, they said.
“It’s a lot of work, it’s a labor of love – we’re not doing it for the money, we don’t make much money. The biggest reward is seeing the young families come in with the little kids; coming out and experiencing getting the Christmas tree just like they did in the old days. You can go to any big box store, any hardware store, and get a tree, but we’re selling the experience,” Howell stated.
Most people purchase their tree the second or third weekend after Thanksgiving, Howell said. The Frosty Outpost Christmas Tree, located at 695 Godfrey Road outside of Hollansburg, is open between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m.
“The best time to come out is early, because you’ll have the best pick,” Howell stated. “The sooner the better…as the season goes on, the pickings start to get pretty thin.”
The Howells said that when a customer pulls up, they try to make sure to go out and greet them, give them a flyer filled with valuable safety and tree-cutting tips, and explain the process to them. Customers are then given a bow saw, a sled, knee pads and a measuring pole, and can then go select their tree, and cut it down on their own, Howell said.
There is a shaker machine on site, so that last year’s dead needles can be easily removed before families put the tree in their homes, Howell commented, and they also have a drill that can square up a hole to fit the tree stand, he said. A netting machine takes the hassle out of getting the tree in the home, for an additional cost, Howell commented.
“The kids can come in for free hot dogs, hot chocolate, and cookies – it’s kind of a reward for all the hard work that they’ve done, getting their tree,” Howell added.
The Howells charge $4.50 per foot, regardless of the type of tree a family picks, they said, and they do have several varieties to choose from including scotch pine, Douglas firs, canaan firs, spruce, and some white pines. Most of the white pines were affected by the drought, though, Howell said.
Along with fresh cut trees, the Howells offer freshly made wreaths at the Outpost, they said. And trunk tie-downs and tree disposal bags for post-season clean-up are included with the tree, they stated.
The Howells also offer many tips for choosing a tree, cutting a tree, and handling the tree once it’s home with the family on their website at www.outpostenterprises.com.