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Pining for Christmas

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WORLD Radio - Pining for Christmas

A tree farm in Kentucky helps families find the perfect tree for the Christmas season


Tom Nieman’s Christmas tree farm Photo by Travis Kircher

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Today is Wednesday, December 6th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Myrna Brown.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. This week on Concurrently: The News Coach Podcast, Kelsey Reed and Jonathan Boes discuss the growing trend of anti-Semitism in the wake of the Israel/Hamas war. Here’s a short preview:

REED: If—I'm not necessarily anti-semitic in my thinking, but what are some ways that that can come out in me? Where in my own life have I experienced this tendency towards blaming or ostracizing the other, failing to do that kind of neighbor love? And how does that work itself out in operation, and maybe even that will lead us into thinking about other places we've seen that type of engagement of our nation, or other nations in history. I'm just thinking right now about the state of our nation right now and how we feel about immigration, how we feel about our borders, how we want there to be a security, and how we can get really outraged and inflamed and be ready to try to stamp out any opposition, regardless of the fact that it's another human being across from us.

BOES: In comparison, thinking about this universal, I guess, tragedy sin, for lack of a better term of entire societies. singling out usually is a minority group as the scapegoat as the source of the problems. We see problems in the world. It'd be so easy if we could just single out one group of people and put it all on them.

EICHER: You can hear the entire episode of Concurrently today wherever you get your podcasts. And find out more at concurrentlypodcast.com.

BROWN: Well coming up next on The World and Everything in it: pining for Christmas.

Some farms grow sweet corn. Others: wheat and potatoes. But one farmer in Lexington, Kentucky, raises a very special kind of crop. WORLD Reporter Travis Kircher takes us on a tour of a Christmas tree farm.

ERIN: I wish this were fluffier right there.

TRAVIS KIRCHER, REPORTER: Erin Schuler and her husband, Kevin, are on the hunt for a Christmas tree. But not just any Christmas tree.

KEVIN: [LAUGHS] It’s hard to keep track.

ERIN: I know! They all start looking the same! I think maybe it was this one…

A sad, droopy-dry Charlie-Brown-tree ain’t gonna cut it.

ERIN: So I kinda like this one.

They’re looking for the perfect tree.

ERIN: Well, um, with kids, I like the needles to be kind of soft. So I don’t like a dry tree, for sure. I like symmetry, I guess, with the tree. What do you look for Kevin?

KEVIN: Just a tree that’s kind of – basically that’s kind of fat, and doesn’t have holes in it. [LAUGHS]

It’s the first Saturday in November. Most families are just starting to think about the Thanksgiving turkey and dressing. But not Kevin and Erin. They loaded up their boys—2-year-old Nathaniel and 8-month-old Christian—and drove to Tom Nieman’s Christmas tree farm. Their mission: to find, tag, and reserve this year’s Christmas tree nearly a full month before it’s even cut.

KEVIN: RRRRRR! Christian – you feel it. Which one do you like? Do you like that one? You like that one?

Now, you might think it’s a little early, but not this couple. They know other families are looking too. And in the search for “the perfect tree,” the competition is fierce.

KEVIN: It looks like half of them are already picked.

ERIN: I think one year we came and they, like, had, like, totally sold out.

KEVIN: Oh yeah. Early.

Meanwhile, 86-year-old Tom Nieman, the owner of Nieman’s Christmas Tree Farm is inside a Kubota tractor, planning his schedule with an employee.

EMPLOYEE: Uh…Schuller is here. And then Passman just called. They said they’re gonna have to push to about 2:15.

Other families have made appointments to tag their trees today. Nieman says they started all the way back on Labor Day.

NIEMAN: We probably have a dozen people would have tagged in June and July if I would have let them come.

A retired professor, Nieman taught landscape architecture for 39 years at the University of Kentucky. He and his wife moved to this farm in the 1970s and started growing tobacco…but when tobacco became less profitable, they switched to growing Christmas trees.

NIEMAN: This patch is seven years old, and that’s what we’re selling out of this year. So we’ve got seven years of tending the trees before they’re ready to go.

Mitchell McCown is one of Nieman’s employees who’s been shaping and tending these trees since he was a boy.

MCCOWN: I came and asked Tom when I was 12. I asked for a job and I’ve been here ever since. I’m 23 now. I owe a lot of credit to him. He’s been a huge part of me growing up.

McCown rattles off a list of the farm’s crop. It includes White Pine, White Fir and Blue Spruce trees as well as Fraser Fir—what he calls the Cadillac of trees. It’s a tree that’s usually only found in the Appalachian Mountains.

He says people don’t recognize how much work and tender loving care goes into growing Christmas trees over the years.

MCCOWN: Whether that be keeping them clean, keeping them mowed, keeping the weeds off of them, making sure that they’re pruned properly. Every tree is pruned by hand by a pair of hand shears so you really get a kind of an intimate experience with that.

McCown says that’s an organic experience that is missing from fake or artificial trees. Tom Nieman grudgingly admits artificial trees have their place. Sort of.

NIEMAN: Fake trees are easier. They’re simple. People buy them and put them away in the closet and pull them out next year. So it’s – it’s kind of a cop-out, so to speak, on the issue.

Out in the field, the search has ended for one family. Little Harrison Morgan and his sister Peyton, proudly survey their tree.

HARRISON: It’s really tall and our house is really big, so we wanted to get a really big tree.

PEYTON: I like it because, it’s, like, there’s no, like, bald spots, and it’s not too big but not too tall. Well, it is tall, but…

HILARY: It’s the perfect shape.

Meanwhile, Erin and Kevin Schuler are still searching. They think they’ve finally narrowed it down to two trees, but then Erin decides to make a surprise play for a third…

ERIN: There’s one more maybe you should take a look at. It’s an intermediate softness! [LAUGHS HARD] Come here!

But even though this couple admits they’re a little bit picky, they finally spot their tree. The Perfect Tree. And at just over an hour, the search didn’t take too long.

ERIN: I like the shape and the color, I think.

KEVIN: Yeah, I would say the symmetry. And also the softness.

A month later on December 2nd Kevin is back. This time, to bring the tree home. And the farm is a much noisier place.

SOUND: Tree being cut.

The trees are cut, loaded onto vehicles, and headed for buyers’ homes. Where Nieman says families have a chance to make memories that are just as evergreen as the perfect tree.

NIEMAN: When they come back next year, they show me the pictures, or show their children are growing up, and they want to do it all over again, and that just tears at my heart. I just really enjoy that. Even if I never made a nickel out of it, the fact of people being happy with – people are being happy because of something we’re doing. That makes me happy.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Travis Kircher, in Lexington, Kentucky.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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