By Nancy Carver Singleton
It was a slow Sunday in December some years ago when big, wet snowflakes started falling at Windy Knoll Tree Farm northeast of Derby.
“We got so busy in a short time because of the heavy snowfall,” recalled Susan Grelinger, who owns the cut-your-own tree farm with her husband, Bob. “Everybody wanted a memory.”
Snow or not, Windy Knoll has been making memories since the Grelingers started the business in 1986. The Christmas season isn’t the only memory making time , although that’s the busiest month, of course. Bob Grelinger tells of a family buying a tree in July to celebrate their son being home on military leave and another family getting one in February to decorate their new home.
Early in their own marriage, it was Susan Grelinger who decided she wanted a fresh Christmas tree. They cut one from a farm near Wichita and returned for several years. Then in 1979, they moved from Wichita to 10 acres on East 47th Street with their children, Ryan, 7, and Trista, 5. Bob worked as a scheduler at Beech Aircraft, and Susan taught school. They planted their first trees the next year and sold their first 10 in 1986. “We started a Christmas tree farm to put the kids through school and also give them a work ethic,” Bob Grelinger said.
It didn’t hurt his, either. He frequently put in eight hours outside after returning from his day job. “There’s plenty of watering, mowing, controlling disease, shaping and then the rest is preparing for Christmas tree sales,” said Bob, who grew up on a farm.
Today, the farm’s 4,000 to 5,000 trees include Austrian, Scotch, Virginia and white pines. Most are cut six to seven feet tall, allowing them to fit under an 8-foot ceiling. They are priced at $10 a foot, with a minimum of $50. The farm also sells “table-top” trees, 15 to 18 inches tall and starting at $15, along with some precut trees that do not grow well in Kansas. The Grelingers make and sell a variety of products in the farm’s gift shop, including wreaths that incorporate branches from their trees, grave blankets, crosses and mailbox “huggies.”
“You name it, and we will try to make it,” Bob Grelinger said.
He retired in 2000 and Susan Grelinger in 2001. Bob Grelinger spends more than 35 to 40 hours a week on the trees in the summer, a little less in the winter. During slow times in the Christmas season, he trims stumps to ready the ground for planting. The Grelingers plant about 1,000 seedlings annually. “Sad to say, they don’t all survive,” Bob Grelinger said. “That’s why you plant more than you sell.”
The Grelingers also sell leafy landscape trees, mostly oaks and maples, and operate a spade service that digs and plants trees purchased at the farm.
Susan Grelinger has served as secretary of the Kansas Christmas Tree Growers Association since 2004, a post she plans to relinquish this month. She says many Christmas tree growers are older and do not have family members joining the farms. Membership declined slowly from 50 Kansas Christmas tree farms when the Grelingers joined in the late 1980s to about 35 now. “But some younger families are getting interested,” she said. “It is a cycle.”
Her daughter-in-law, Amy Grelinger, started working at Windy Knoll in recent years after moving to Derby. “We feel very fortunate we have a daughter-in-law who loves Christmas and is learning the business,” Susan said. Ryan Grelinger helps maintain the farm’s equipment. Teenage grandsons Zach and Josh mowed, planted seedlings and moved water hoses this summer while Bob recovered from rotator cuff surgery.
Selling Christmas trees safely amid COVID-19 presents a challenge. The National Christmas Tree Growers Association made suggestions and growers exchanged ideas. The Grelingers decided to shorten their season but extend their operating hours. They opened the first Sunday before Thanksgiving as usual but will close after Dec. 13 instead of the usual Dec. 20. The farm is open 1-5 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. weekends. “The goal is to not have large groups of people here at one time,” Bob Grelinger said.
This season, customers will not be allowed to tag a tree in advance and cut it later. The number of gift shop customers is limited, and masks must be worn inside. Customers pay for everything at a window. Free apple cider is handed out another window. There will be no visits from Santa Claus and the red sleigh is not out for photo opportunities. But a barrel train will still give children rides through the rows of Christmas trees, with every other car empty.
The Grelingers plan to distance themselves from customers as much as possible, which is quite a change. The Christmas season is typically a reunion for the couple and long-time customers, with hugs often exchanged. One customer always takes a photo of his son, who’s now in college, with the Grelingers. “It will be hard to not greet people,” Susan Grelinger said. “Some people have come for so long and it will be hard on them, too.”
Windy Know Tree Farm
15630 E. 47th St. S. (between Greenwich and Butler roads), windyknolltrees.com.
By Nancy Carver Singleton