Growing Christmas joy from the ground up

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Ozark Valley Christmas Tree Farm grows and sells Scotch pines: Six-foot-tall trees are easy to find, but smaller sizes are, too. “We always get kids who want a tree their size,” says owner Charity Keith.

SOUTHWEST CITY – Operating a Christmas tree farm isn’t a seasonal job. And for Charity Keith, owner of Ozark Valley Christmas Tree Farm, it’s not a job at all. It’s a calling, one that’s influenced by her faith. “I always pray that this is a place that’s good for families,” she says of farm, which she owns with her husband, Jon.

Cultivating the farm

Charity didn’t grow up planning to own a Christmas tree farm. In a former life, she was an elementary teacher at the nearby Noel school district: During those years, however, her mind began to wander. “I loved our garden, and thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat to have crops all year?’ recalls Charity.

That thought turned into a desire, and the desire turned into reality. Even though Charity had never been to a Christmas tree farm, she and her husband decided that “crop” might be the one for them to cultivate. They joined the Missouri Christmas Tree Association, where the couple “found out what we were getting into,” says Charity.

The couple planted some 500 trees — and then began to wait. After all, no amount of wishing, hoping, Miracle-Gro or even holiday magic can make a Christmas tree farm appear overnight.

“It took us seven years before we were open for business,” says Charity. But that’s not the only hurdle the tree owners faced. “There are so many factors you can’t control,” she says, noting that when there was a drought, they lost every seedling except one. If that wasn’t bad enough, later “we lost more trees to excess rain than to drought,” says Charity.

Opening day eventually came in 2012, and things have grown — literally and figuratively — since then. “I…hope to sell 400 to 500 trees this year,” says Charity.

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Ozark Valley’s trees start out between 12 and 18 inches in height, such as the seedling at left. They can grow to upwards of six feet tall.

The growing process

In order to have those trees ready to sell, the couple plants annually. It’s a process that usually begins in February or March, and results in between 800 to 1,200 new additions each year. “It depends on how much land we have available,” explains Charity.

The Scotch-pine seedlings start out around 1.5 feet tall and are acquired from nurseries in northern parts of the country. Holes for the trees are dug on a grid, so “you’ve got straight lines both ways, east and west,” says Charity.

But that’s only the beginning of the process. “You don’t just plant (trees) and walk away,” says Charity. There are other things, such as bugs, pests, tree diseases and weed control that must be considered throughout the year.

Barring any unforeseen issues, one of the farm’s busiest months is June. That’s when, despite a lack of sheep, it’s shearing time at the farm. “(The trees) don’t have a Christmas tree shape on their own,” says Charity. “You have to cut them back.”

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The trees, a perfect place for hide-and-seek, take a lot of work to maintain. But for Charity, it’s worth it in the end. “It feels so good to work and sweat (and) see what I’ve done with my own two hands,” she says.

Time is also spent cutting stumps down from already felled trees — and playing tag or hide-and-seek among the rows, a playground Charity’s three kids have always known. “I’ve had trees longer than I’ve had children,” says Charity, whose kids are 8, 6 and 1 year old.

When autumn comes to a close, the crew really springs into action. After all, it is close to the season’s start: But it’s also because the Christmas tree farm is located adjacent to the Right Choices Corn Maze, which is owned by Charity’s parents. The maze doesn’t close until soon before the Christmas tree farm opens for the season, “so there are a lot of things we can’t do until the last minute,” says Charity.

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Charity Keith mans the cash register in Ozark Valley’s gift shop.

A family affair

The connection with Charity’s parents is a beneficial one. The Keiths help her parents operate their corn maze, and then her parents return the favor come Christmastime. It is a team effort to operate the farm, which is much more than simply a cut-and-buy-one-stop-shop. “We make it to be a real family experience,” says Charity. “It’s not just getting a tree.”

Jada Alfaro, an 11-year-old visitor on her first time to the farm, agrees that the experience is worth the effort. “It’s harder, but it’s doing it together,” she says, accompanied by her parents and 6-year-old younger brother, Quinten.

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Ozark Valley offers its visitors a variety of activities to accentuate their visit to the farm.

In addition to finding that perfect yuletide decoration, the farm offers its visitors speciality hayrides and holiday snacks. A nativity scene in the barn nearby ties back to the Keiths’ faith, and holiday crafts and photo backdrops help tie back to the overall experience.

And obvious by those efforts, the Keiths hope that when families leave with more than just a tree. They want them to take away memories, too — a hope that Charity says is satisfying. “A lot of people get to connect their past with their children’s present, and I get to be a part of that,” she says.

Want more information?

Ozark Valley Christmas Tree Farm can be reached on Facebook or via its website. In addition to the trees the farm grows, it also sells pre-cut white pine and Frazier fir trees.