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Published on: Oct. 16, 2012

Bob Hinds planted his first shortleaf pine seedling on his farm east of Willow Springs in 1960. A few years later, Domien Meert planted the first of hundreds of thousands of evergreen and hardwood trees on his fledgling tree nursery near Festus. Al Lintzenich got into the act a few years later, when he started a Christmas tree farm near Gray Summit.

Tree planting got to be a habit for all three men, their families and even some of their neighbors. Lintzenich continued to plant trees for more than 40 years. Meert and Hinds are still at it. Each had different goals, and each has reaped different benefits from his labor, but they all have one thing in common—planting stock from the Conservation Department’s George O. White State Forest Nursery at Licking.

Hogs, Herefords and Pines

Growing trees was never one of Hinds’ top priorities. In the early 1960s, he was building a successful hog- and cattle-breeding operation that drew buyers from all over the world. Like farmers in all times and places, Hinds had to make use of every resource at his disposal to keep the farm in the black. That meant finding a use for hardscrabble Ozark acres.

“The places where we planted trees were just poor land,” Hinds recalled as we drove between patches of pine trees scattered around his farm, “It had nothing but blackjack and post oak on it and it was doing no good. Rather than put it in pasture, I thought it would be more productive over the years to put it in pine.”

The key words there are “over the years.” Each fall and winter for more than 50 years, Hinds, his wife, Jackie, and their children planted trees. The only exceptions were one year when a near-fatal automobile accident laid him up and another spent repairing damage from a tornado.

Hinds’ first planting was about 3 acres of shortleaf pine. By 1965, he had 52 acres planted. At a stocking rate of 400 pines per acre, that is more than 20,000 trees. All the seedlings were planted with an 11-pound steel planting bar. They also sowed pine seed from the state forest nursery. Hinds would bulldoze a strip of scruboak timber in October, then come back when snow was on the ground and broadcast pine seeds from the back of a horse.

Hinds, his children and occasional hired help planted about 10 acres a year. Today they have nearly 500 acres of pine plantation. Most of it is shortleaf, Missouri’s native pine. They also planted wildlife-habitat bundles from the state forest nursery.

Five hundred acres of trees is a lot to care for when you already have a full-time job. Pine plantations are deliberately overstocked to allow for losses to disease, insects and weather. Periodic thinning is needed to prevent overcrowding and promote good growth. Just as planting trees was never Hinds’ top priority, neither was thinning.

“We always had all kinds of things to do beside thin our pines,” says Hinds. The exception was one stand of trees where he thinned according to the Conservation Department’s recommendations. “A year later I went back and measured the circumference of them. It was astonishing the growth they had put on,” says Hinds. That experience prompted him to hire a professional logger to thin some of his pines.

Although Hinds hasn’t always been methodical about thinning, he achieved the same result by selling some young trees for use as poles. The remaining trees now are 1.5 to 2 feet in diameter. Hinds’ son Kelly set up a small sawmill at the farm and has produced enough lumber to build a home, a hunting cabin and a big pole barn. His father’s pride in that accomplishment is apparent as he shows off the buildings.

Another unforeseen benefit is improved wildlife habitat. Deer and turkey got hunted out during the Great Depression, but they are plentiful again today, thanks to reintroduction efforts by MDC and Hinds’ habitat restoration.

A Community Effort

Like Hinds, Meert was looking for a way to employ an unused resource—youthful energy. He worked for Boeing in St. Louis. His wife, Eileen, had her hands full too, raising six children. But in their spare time they threw themselves into establishing a tree nursery.

“We had to do something to pay for 28 years of college education. I had four weeks’ vacation a year, and every weekend, every vacation we spent here playing in the dirt. We’re still working night and day at it,” he says with a smile.

Their nursery now covers 160 acres in southern Jefferson County. It is a patchwork of Scotch pine, spruce, fir, dogwood, redbud, oaks and other trees stitched together with 100 miles of water pipe and drip-irrigation line. The air was heavy with the scent of pine on the warm June afternoon when I visited Meert Tree Farm.

The Meerts’ first planting was 1,000 Scotch pine seedlings from the state forest nursery. This was before chemical weed control or power mowers. All the cultivation and maintenance was done by hand. At the peak of their operation, they planted as many as 10,000 trees in one year and had 100,000 in the ground.

The Meerts sell approximately 1,000 Christmas trees on a you-cut basis each November and December and supply ball-andburlap trees to wholesale and retail nurseries. Evergreens that grow too large for Christmas trees are turned into Christmas wreaths and sold in Meert Tree Farm’s gift shop during the holiday season.

Because they harvest trees selectively, rather than taking all the trees from a plot at once, they can’t use a mechanized planter. They still set each seedling by hand, just as they did 49 years ago. During the peak years, the Meerts’ children helped with planting. When they needed more help, they hired local high schoolers. Now it’s just Domien, Eileen, one hired hand and their daughter Jennifer Summercamp, who caught the tree-farming bug from her parents.

It sounds like a lot of work for two people who are eligible for Social Security, but they get lots of help from neighbors and friends they have made over the years. Kids who worked for the Meerts now are adults with fond memories of the farm. They are quick to pitch in with special projects, like electrical repairs. People who first came to the farm as wide-eyed toddlers now have children of their own, or even grandchildren, to bring to the farm each Christmas.

“It’s like a family down here,” says Meert. He and Eileen have a special place in their hearts for the staff of the state forest nursery, too. When they visit the facility each spring to pick up their seedlings, they always bring doughnuts.

Although the Meerts have put their tree farm on the market, it remains a central part of their lives. When I ask Domien why he continues to plant, trim and harvest, he laughs and says, “I think it’s a habit. I guess I just like playing with these plants out here.”

Christmas Tree Valley

Al Lintzenich’s career as a residential builder left him with spare time from late fall through winter. He got his start in the Christmas tree business selling cut trees imported from Canada and then thought it might be interesting to raise his own. After selling trees through lots operated by civic clubs and Boy Scout troops for a few years, he switched to the booming you-cut business. He quickly figured out that he needed more than trees to attract repeat buyers.

“You have to have something for the kids if you want to keep your customers,” he says. “You have to give the kids something to do while mom and dad pick out a tree. We let kids have the run of the place while parents tree-shopped.”

That didn’t mean letting kids run wild, however. Lintzenich and his wife, Marilyn, developed activities to entertain kids, adding a new attraction every year. Before they knew it, their tree farm had turned into a modest theme park. They named it Christmas Tree Valley.

An early innovation was turning a big cedar tree on the property into “Mouse Town” with hundreds of toy mice peeking out from various places.

“It was a big hit with little kids,” recalls Lintzenich as he sorts through newspaper clippings documenting Christmas Tree Valley at its zenith. “We told kids they could have a candy cane if they guessed how many mice there were. They always guessed right!”

Lintzenich created a miniature log cabin Christmas village with a stable, church, schoolhouse, hotel, and Santa’s house. He installed model trains that ran through the village to capture children’s imagination. One traveled a circuit of 300 feet between buildings. But perhaps the biggest hit was a big bulletin board where the Lintzenichs posted photos of families who visited Christmas Tree Valley.

“People would come and hunt for photos of themselves from years before,” recalls Lintzenich. They could see their whole family history there, with the kids growing from year to year. They loved that.”

The business grew and grew. At the peak in the 1980s, the Lintzenichs had three tree farms and were planting thousands of Scotch pines each year to keep up with demand. They got help from Boy Scouts, too. Marilyn’s volunteer work as a merit-badge counselor gave scouts an opportunity to earn a forestry merit badge while playing an important part in what had become a community institution.

In spite of all the work that went into Christmas Tree Valley, it never provided much income. “We did it for the children,” Lintzenich says. “Working with kids, building things for them and so forth was the real reason for doing it. If you counted your labor, it was a losing proposition.” The Lintzenichs’ son John eventually took over the tree farm. Apparently he inherited his parents’ civic-mindedness as well. When a tornado decimated Joplin’s trees in 2011, he donated trees for the stricken town’s recovery effort.

ROI

What’s the return on investment from half a century of tree planting? Hinds got erosion control, commercial pole timber, wildlife and a ready source of lumber for construction projects. The Meerts’ tree farm helped put six kids through college and earned them a special place in their community. The Lintzenichs earned a little extra cash, provided hands-on experience for a generation of aspiring foresters and stored up a lifetime of memories.

But planting a tree provides something beyond all that, something transcendent. As Aldo Leopold wrote, “Acts of creation are ordinarily reserved for gods and poets. To plant a

pine, one need only own a shovel.”

The Cradle of Missouri Forests

The same year that Bob Hinds and his family planted their first tree, MDC renamed the State Forest Nursery at Licking in honor of George O. White. White began his career with the U.S. Forest Service. In 1934 he selected the site of the facility that now bears his name. He went on to become Missouri’s first state forester and is considered the father of MDC’s Forestry Division.

The nursery was established to grow shortleaf pine seedlings for the newly established Mark Twain National Forest. MDC acquired the 40-acre nursery in a land swap in 1942. It now covers 780 acres and produces 5 million seedlings annually, including more than 70 species of trees, shrubs and prairie plants. In its 77-year history, the state forest nursery has produced hundreds of millions of trees and rebuilt the state’s once-depleted forest resources. For more information about the nursery, including how to order seedlings, see the insert in the middle of this issue the Conservationist, or visit mdc.mo.gov/node/3986.

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