Three generations of the Rood family, from left, Mike, Jessica, Leroy, Jill, Mary, Jenna and Scott, farm near Hermann, Mo. Currently, more than 280,000 nursery and Christmas trees are growing on their farm.
|Jet-setter finds heaven on a Missouri Christmas tree #farm. #MOFB #agritourism|
|4 decades and a labor of love for 3 generations on a #Missouri tree farm. #MOFB #agritourism|
It was a country drive in late December that led Leroy and Mary Rood from the jet set life they lived to a tree farm in the hills of central Missouri. They were not looking to buy property, much less begin a career in agriculture, but they fell in love with the Christmas tree farm they went to see near Hermann. Mary calls it, “a little piece of heaven.” That was 41 years ago, and they haven’t looked back.
Back then, the Rood’s didn’t expect the owners would seriously consider their bid, so they were surprised when the bank called and said they were the new owners of Pea Ridge Forest. In the beginning, it was little more than a glori?ed multi?ora rose and blackberry patch, says Mike Rood, Leroy and Mary’s son. There were about 100 Christmas trees on 50 acres.
After four short years and not enough farm income, Leroy began moonlighting for his former employer, McDonnell Douglas, to supplement their cash ?ow. As a design engineer, Leroy literally hung around the jet set. He had worked on the Gemini spacecraft, the F-4, F-14, F-15 and F-18 fighter jets, plus the prototype for the lunar landing craft that went to the moon. He worked on aircraft hydraulics and insulation. But the excitement of high-profile projects could not keep them from the farm.
For Leroy and Mary, the farm was a great place to raise their kids, but like many kids growing up in the family business, Mike and his brother Scott didn’t plan on returning to the farm after college. The closer to graduation the more they realized the farm was where they wanted to be. Leroy and Mary’s daughter, Michelle, went into health care in nearby Columbia.
When Mike with his forest management degree and Scott with a degree in international relations came home, the ?rst major evolution began.
EVOLUTION OF A CHRISTMAS TREE FARM
If you ask Mike how many kinds of trees are grown on the farm, he’ll likely turn it into an education opportunity. For example, they grow 14 different kinds of redbuds and 15 varieties of dogwood alone. When you mention either of those trees to many Missourians, often only one variety comes to mind, the one with the beautiful blooms in spring that brighten the waking woods. In total, some 280,000 trees are currently being grown in Pea Ridge Forest.
Until 1991, however, Pea Ridge Farm had grown strictly Christmas trees and provided fertile ground for education and evolution ideas for Mike and Scott. Growing up on the farm, Mike had the opportunity to learn from nursery experts who worked with the Roods, one in particular, Jerry Pieper. Mike followed him to Tennessee and elsewhere during school breaks to learn tricks of the trade and further his knowledge. During college, he realized that a change in the farm’s business model could increase pro?ts, and Mike and Scott initiated diversi?cation into nursery stock. Today, only 25 percent of the trees are “Christmas” trees; the other 75 percent is grown and sold to nurseries and landscapers.
Another part of the next step for the farm was education, on a couple of levels. Several nurseries associated with universities, namely the University of North Carolina and the University of Tennessee, have and continue to run experimental trials at Pea Ridge. These experiments are designed to test the boundaries of viability and survivability for newly released plants.
Interestingly, with the help of Earl Cully, a nurseryman from Jacksonville, Ill., and owner of Heritage Trees Inc., the Roods have patented a tree called the “Castle green.” It is a prestigious columnar English crossed with swamp white oak. Cully has patented several trees, which are sold in nurseries around the United States. The Roods’ tree has been included in The Manual of Woody Landscape Plants: Their Identification, Ornamental Characteristics, Culture, Propagation and Uses by Michael A. Dirr, also known to the Roods as the nurseryman’s bible.
The Roods’ passion and knowledge of trees have opened some unexpected doors, creating educational programs and opening their farm to visitors beyond the festivities during the holiday season. An average of 20 organizations visit the farm annually, including preschoolers and younger children, and the Roods created “Babes in the Woods,” a program specifically for them. During this tour, children participate in craft activities, pick ?owers and learn what different varieties of mushrooms look like. In addition, high school FFA students visited this summer and planted 200 trees in 40 minutes, unintentionally impressing their adviser.
Pea Ridge Forest is also partnering with the Hermann Chamber of Commerce to host bus tours to the farm. Four came this year, the last in July when 55 visitors toured as a part of the AgriMissouri/Agritourism Conference. July was a big month for the Roods, as they held their annual open house as well, during which guests were welcome to tour the farm, ask questions and maybe even sit by the new pond and play on the volleyball court.
Amidst all of this activity, the Christmas trees wait their turn. This part of the business has not been lost or abandoned, but has instead become a special season all its own. Around 2,000 to 2,500 trees are sold each year from the farm. When you visit during the holidays, you can expect a full Christmas experience, including a wagon ride to the ?eld to pick the perfect tree and the chance to cut it down yourself. Area wineries, meat shops, snack stands and even Santa Claus can be found in the old barn back at the shop, as well as freshly made evergreen wreaths.
During the last days of winter, first and third graders come to the farm to tap the trees as a part of a hands-on program to see how syrup is made. Some of them even get to venture down the winding gravel road to pick out a tree to tap on their own.
“I want the kids to know that the syrup just doesn’t come from a bottle on the shelf,” Mike says.
About 100 gallons of sap is tapped out of the farm’s sugar maple trees, and after a day-long cooking process in Mary’s kitchen, it is reduced and re?ned to about three gallons of pure maple syrup.
HARD TIMES AND HELPING HANDS
While the 2012 drought effects on crops across the state were devastating, the Rood tree farm was not immune. As with all crops, the lack of water was a huge issue for the trees. The slowing of landscaping projects as a result of the drought further affected their nursery business adversely.
“The landscaping and nursery business is economy driven,” Mike says, “and since the housing market has came to a halt, tree business is down.”
The good news was the Christmas tree business was not affected. While many small producers didn’t have the resources to ?ght the dry weather last year, the Roods worked through it. With 280,000 nursery and Christmas trees to care for, they had their hands full.
Mike’s daughter Jessica, 12 at the time, was in charge of the irrigation, but the dry weather and needs of the trees was overwhelming and it became a job for many individuals. Drip line and spike irrigation was installed along tree lines to ensure as many trees as possible made it through, though some loss did occur.
The Roods applied for the well grant available to many Missouri farmers, but it’s hard to explain to people outside the business how hard it is to get water to new trees, Mike says. Until PVC pipe was placed through the ?elds for irrigation, many of the trees suffered, unlike livestock that can walk to water or have it trucked in to them.
Like crop farmers, the Roods face other issues. Pests are always a concern, since they can do substantial damage to a tree, as well as deer damage and disease, which is perhaps the most prominent.
But the Roods are good at ?nding the silver lining when issues arise, and helping others seems to come naturally. When the St. Louis Zoo, a landscaping customer, called last summer at the height of the drought looking for foliage to feed the elephants and primates, the Roods didn’t miss a beat. They ?lled a gooseneck trailer with trees every Friday and only charged shipping.
At the end of the day, one thing is clear: Family is a huge part of this farm and what keeps it running. Three generations of family farming together and 42 years later, the farm has become a solid endeavor—no moonlighting for Leroy in a long time. No, today he is the chief equipment mechanic (not far from his training in aeronautics, as machines are machines) and delivery and shipping coordinator.
Mary, too, ?lls a role very close to the one she ?lled when their kids were young; she works in the ?eld and watches their three granddaughters. In fact, on Mother’s Day, she planted more than 6,000 trees. She is also the one making sure the old barn is decorated and the wreaths are made for Christmas.
As for Mike and Scott, they’re part tour guide, part farm management and part tree herder, planting, maintaining and marketing the trees. Mike even met his wife on the farm when she worked on his mother’s “girl crew” during the summer. The farm brought them together, and their three girls are all enthusiastic about trees and helping grandma and dad on the farm. They even have favorites: 13-year-old Jessica’s is the Japanese maple; at 11, Jenna’s is the Dogwood; and 7-year-old Jill’s is the Ginko.
The Roods might have fallen into farming by accident, but the journey has been a blessing. Three generations of family live within a mile of each other on one property and farm together. Mike puts it best when he says, “It is truly a blessing to wake up and just walk out the door to go to work every day.”