There is a place over the hills and through the woods where the wood stove crackles, and the smell of warm apple cider and cookies fills the air. It sits right down the lane lined with Scotch pine near the house of Butch and Darlene Augspurg.
What used to be an old detached garage is now the main gathering place for those visiting The Branch Ranch outside of Philadelphia, Mo. Families stop by the farm starting every November to choose and cut a Christmas tree.
According to the National Christmas Tree Association, last year, U.S. consumers purchased 27.4 million farm-grown Christmas trees. The association's recent poll shows that just 23% of Americans like to choose and cut their own holiday trees. The rest want precut trees that they can pick up at the farm, retail store or tree lot.
TYPES OF TREES: The Augspurgs grow Scotch pine to sell off the farm. However, they ship in Fraser firs from Michigan to offer customers as well.
The Augspurgs know that the number of choose-and-cut tree farms continues to decline. It is following the trend of Christmas tree farms in general. Just 15 years ago, there were close to 200 tree farms in the state, according to the U.S. Census of Agriculture. That number dropped almost in half by 2012.
According to the National Christmas Tree Association, the 105 Missouri Christmas tree farms in 2012 had sales of nearly $1.15 million for 32,810 trees, which ranks Missouri 16th in the nation for total sales.
However, the census shows the number of acres devoted to growing Christmas trees in Missouri is on the decline: from 3,775 acres in 2002, to 1,596 acres in 2007 and 1,324 acres in 2012.
These statistics do not bother the Augspurgs. The couple has been raising trees on their family farm since 1990. For Butch and Darlene, raising Christmas trees is more than just dollars and cents. It is about the farm, the families and their faith.
The Branch Ranch has been in the Augspurg family name since the 1950s. It has been home to cattle on pasture, hogs in houses and row crops in fields. That is all gone. Now trees fill the gently rolling landscape, from Scotch pine to maple.
Butch planted 500 Scotch pines back in 1990. "At that time, we were still novices," he says. "We turned cattle in to graze, and they ate the top of all the first 500!" Today, there are 6,000 trees planted — and no cattle.
It takes roughly five to seven years for a sapling to mature for harvest. The trees are pruned meticulously each year. During the early days, Butch and Darlene sculpted the trees. Now they hire a pruning crew from Michigan to tend to the tree shaping.
Still, Butch wanders through the rows inspecting trees and looking for insect or disease pressures. "It is a year-round project," he says. "It is not just planting a tree, watching it grow and harvesting it. It is a labor-intensive process to get a young tree to grow into a Christmas tree ready to be taken home by a family."
GATHERING GARAGE: Darlene Augspurg did not want to remove the farm's garage, so her husband, Butch, cleaned and repaired it. It now serves as the hub for all activity at the farm during the holiday season. She decorates the inside with trinkets, stockings — and even a model train.
About 550 families will pass through the rusted metal farm gate this year. "We are now seeing those who were here as kids bringing their children," Darlene says. "Some travel great distances just to come back and visit."
The couple opens the farm on Nov. 24 — "Green Friday" as Butch refers to it. It stays open every weekend until Christmas on Saturdays from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m.
While families make the journey to The Branch Ranch for the tree, they stay for the experience. Or is it Darlene's cookies and cider?
During the four weeks The Branch Ranch is open, Darlene bakes more than 3,000 cookies to pass out to children and adults. To go along with date pinwheels and snickerdoodles is a warm cup of apple cider or hot chocolate. There is no money exchanged. She gives the goodies away.
"I love Christmas," Darlene says. "It is my favorite time of year. I just enjoy handing them out and seeing the joy on the kids' faces."
Unfortunately, not all of the children come to the ranch with a smile on their face.
SHARING JOY: The Augspurgs provide trees to children's homes in the area. It is all part of their mission to share the true reason for the season — giving.
One year, Butch says a young girl standing in the shed was staring at the decorations. As she walked around looking at the sleighs, stockings and ice skates, she did not seem happy.
The girl was part of Shiloh Christian Children's Ranch, which visits The Branch Ranch every year. Based in Shelbina, Mo., Shiloh provides Christian homes for abused, neglected and other children, and aims to meet the spiritual, emotional, social and physical needs of each child.
"We give them trees for their homes," Butch says. "They come out and cut down their own tree." It has been a tradition for many years; however, this one young girl caught his attention. So he walked over.
"When she finally looked up at me, she had the saddest eyes I have ever seen," he recalls. He talked to her, pointed out his favorite decorations and made a few jokes. "It took 30 minutes to get that little girl to smile just once," he says choking back tears. "It should not take that long."
The couple realizes that not everyone who arrives at The Branch Ranch may have a happy home. However, when the visitors leave, the Augspurgs want them to feel the joy they feel for the season themselves. And they say it is all because of the reason for the season.
"We make no excuses for having decorations that represent the birth of Jesus, which is why we celebrate Christmas," Darlene says. "But we don't push our beliefs on others. We also have decorations with Santa and elves. It is just about bringing joy to those who visit our farm."
This is the 30th anniversary of the first trees sold off the farm. Butch says they have been blessed to have been able to be at the tree farm and have such wonderful friends and family stop by over the years. "We will continue as long as the good Lord allows," he adds.