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Carlsons are building traditions at tree farm and learning lodge

By Jean Caspers-Simmet

Date Modified: 01/08/2014 3:54 PM

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HAMPTON, Iowa — Dennis and Cathy Carlson say their Christmas tree farm is about creating family traditions.

"Christmas is about experiences, traditions," Dennis said. "We're trying to help create memories for people. You can never take a memory away."

The couple started Carlson Tree Farmer west of Hampton in the 1980s to generate extra family income.

"I was a forester, so we started a Christmas tree farm," said Dennis, who retired four years ago as director of Franklin County Conservation.

The couple's three children —Michelle, Kelly and Ben —grew up with the business and still help. Michelle's and Kelly's husbands and children are now part of the operation. Siblings, nieces and nephews and their children also help. They hire two people, one to help with wreaths and the other with trees.

"There are about 25 of us, and we're still pretty much a family operation," Dennis said.

A few years ago, Cathy, who has baked wedding cakes, pies, cookies and breads for 35 years as Cathy's Country Cook'n, started growing five acres of wheat.

"We plant and harvest it with help from local farmers," she said. "Rainbow Feed and Grain in Hampton cleans and bags it, and I sell wheat for people to grind, or I grind it into whole wheat flour."

When Dennis retired he missed working with children. With money inherited from their parents, they built Learning Tree Lodge to host field trips, conservation workshops and church groups. The Carlsons don't charge anything for the community to use the facility.

"This is purely for teaching," Dennis said. "Our goal is to teach people about the world outside their window and connect them to their food."

Youngsters press apples, dig potatoes and harvest wheat. A Bible school group ate a stew made of vegetables they harvested and buns made from wheat they gathered.

Cathy organizes wreath-making workshops on Tuesday afternoons during the holiday season.

"We have mothers, daughters, grandmothers, sisters and friends who make wreaths together," Cathy said. "Families and friends like doing stuff together."

The tree farm is at the center of the couple's education vision. Recently, the 33 students in Michelle Bridgewater and Kate Hornung's Iowa Falls kindergarten classes visited. Each class got to take a fresh-cut Christmas tree back to school.

The students started in the lodge where Dennis told them about the buffalo, raccoon, squirrel and mink skins people wore to stay warm. They saw where the Carlsons flock their Christmas trees.

"It makes them look like they have snow on them," Dennis explained.

It was frigid, but the youngsters clad in boots, snow pants, coats, hats and mittens tromped out to see the trees. Dennis asked the children to sing "Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer" while he sawed the tree down.

The children eagerly hauled the tree back to the barn and shook with abandon when Dennis told them they had to teach the tree to dance so they could shake the needles off. They pulled on a long rope to get the tree through the netter.

Dennis poured grain into the hands of children who fed it to the goats, and then it was time to get out of the cold in the red barn.

The kindergartners warmed up with apple cider and animal crackers while Cathy told them how she makes fresh wreaths out of trees that can't be sold as Christmas trees. She showed them many sizes of pine cones and explained how to tell the age of a tree by counting trunk rings.

"The pine and the fir are both 11 years old, but it takes much longer to grow a fir," Cathy said showing the larger piece of trunk from a pine and the smaller from a fir.

The couple grows Scotch and white pine, blue and white spruce, and fraser and concolor firs. Since their soil is too rich to grow firs well, they bring in some to sell.

"Trees are so important," Cathy said. "When we breathe, we take in oxygen and give off carbon dioxide. Trees are the opposite. They love carbon dioxide and give off oxygen. We're a perfect pair. They give us what we need, and we give them what they need."

Trees offer protection from sun and wind, hold soil in place and offer habitat for birds and other wildlife.

"We are like a hotel for birds," Cathy said. "Nearly every tree has a nest in it."

The Carlsons grow 4,000 Christmas trees on 10 acres in a 10-year rotation. They sell 300 trees annually.

"We want to pass on an appreciation for the world God created," Dennis said. "Since we do this on our own, we can include God as much as we want."

The Carlsons open the day after Thanksgiving and are open each weekend until they sell out of trees or until Christmas.

From Coulter or Highway 3, Carlson Tree Farm is one mile south and 1.25 miles east on 130th Street. For more information, visit, or see them on Facebook at