ST. CLOUD (AP) -- This holiday season, Joe Styles will see families at his St. Cloud farm sipping cider, feeding buffalo, posing for photos and -- oh, yes -- picking the perfect Christmas tree.
Styles' operation is one of about 330 tree farms in Minnesota. Some farms specialize in wholesale production. But in a decade, about 40 choose-and-cut farms like his have turned the tree-cutting tradition into a multisensory event with added attractions.
"It's called agri-entertainment," said Pat Olive, executive director of the Minnesota Christmas Tree Association.
Olive has seen a host of amenities: reindeer, wagon rides, Christmas cookies, bonfires, even an animal identification game using wooden cutouts among the trees.
At Jan's Cut-Your-Own, southeast of St. Cloud, Santa arrives by helicopter at noon for the first two Saturdays and Sundays after Thanksgiving. He stays for the afternoon at the main farm near the intersection of Minnesota Highway 25 and Sherburne County Road 48.
Hinkemeyer's Tree Farm, five miles east of Rice on Benton County Road 2, is opening a hot dog stand this year. That's in addition to a gift shop, hay rides and hot drinks, co-owner Jan Hinkemeyer said.
At Styles' Riverbluff Tree Farm, shoppers ride in wooden-walled wagons to tree patches and to the corral where 17 buffalo -- bull, cows and calves -- roam. A 1948 Allis-Chalmers tractor, a pop-popping John Deere and a pair of Percherons with jingle bells provide the power.
"It's not just 'buy a tree,' " Styles said. "It's 'come out and have an adventure."'
That's a change from the late 1970s, when Jan Hinkemeyer started tree farming. "Now it's like a family outing."
Styles' tree farming adventure started 17 years ago when his father-in-law deeded his family 10 acres of farmland on the west side of the Mississippi River. Styles was inspired by a retired grocer who remained spry in his 80s as a tree farm operator near Rice.
Like the retiree, he and his wife, Barb, got their entire family involved at the first Riverbluff Tree Farm. They started harvesting trees in 1995, but they could see that St. Cloud soon would swallow up the farm.
In 1993, they bought land for their second location north of St. Augusta. Last year was the first season of operation there.
The farm, with 25,000 trees, is an environmental haven recently annexed into St. Cloud. Deer visit the creek that cuts through the rolling hills, and 45 bluebird houses dot the landscape. Five acres close to Interstate Highway 94 are planted in prairie grasses instead of trees.
Across the road, Styles and business partner Roger Woeste have six strands of electric wire around the buffalo pasture. For the tree season, the herd will stay close to a corral built of old telephone poles and highway guard rails. Their blue tongues will snatch whole cobs of corn from the tree shoppers that visit.
Styles, a St. Joseph dentist, enjoys a "serious hobby" that takes him outdoors. In summer, he and some of his 20 employees prune to control growth and make room for ornaments.
In spring, he usually plants 3,000 to 4,000 trees. This year the total hit 10,000 because so many drought-damaged trees had to be replaced. Tree growers welcomed this year's exceptional precipitation.
Christmas trees require year-round work, but the majority of Minnesota's growers have another full-time job, Olive said. At least 500,000 trees are harvested annually in Minnesota, Olive said. A 1997 federal report found that $11 million of the nation's $442 million in tree sales came from Minnesota.
Some farms grow trees for both wholesale and cut-your-own markets; some specialize.
Jan's Cut-Your-Own in Sherburne County is the counterpart to a wholesale operation that is shipping 15,000 trees to five states this year, co-owner John Donelson said.
Minnesota tree farming started in sandy soils of eastern Sherburne County, where pine grows well. Spruce and fir require soils that are naturally richer or are fertilized, Olive said.
Minnesota is not among the nation's top tree producers, but it has enough cutting sites to help young families start traditions and older visitors reminisce, growers say.
"The growers truly enjoy the families coming," Olive said. "They don't make much money, really they don't, but ... it makes them feel good."
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.