Columbia Christmas tree farm could be nearing its end

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COLUMBIA — John Alspaugh and his family own the Hinkson Creek Farm, including its very popular Christmas tree patch of over two decades, but they aren’t sure how much longer that may be. 

After every Thanksgiving, the Alspaugh family opens its Christmas tree farm to the public. One of the most unique pieces of the operation is families get to come with kids and pets, and the Alspaugh's give them a bow saw and a measuring stick so they can choose and cut their very own tree as part of a family-friendly activity.

“We give you a measuring stick and a bow saw so you can cut the tree yourself, but if you need help, we’ve got a chainsaw and we can cut it for you,” Bruce Alspaugh, John’s son, said.

Bruce Alspaugh said prices have also dropped to $4.00 per foot, which is a 50-cent mark-off from a year ago.

Interestingly, price trends have gone up nationally over the last few years, but John Alspaugh said the discounted trees on their farm are due to weather.

“Last summer we had an extremely high humidity, particularly in the month of July, and the extreme heat was very hard on the trees,” he said. “They don’t look nearly as good now as they did in previous years, so we decided we would discount them a little bit, because of the extreme high humidity and high temperatures of last summer.”

Jokingly, he added it was a mistake to lower the price, but he is optimistic for higher quality trees in the future.

“Give them a year and they’ll bounce back, and we’ll be fine,” he said.

They will be fine for the time being, but John Alspaugh hinted father time might catch up to him soon enough.

“Here’s the problem, I’m 79 years old and I have Parkinson’s and we’re not sure how long we can continue,” he said. “So there’s a real question if we will continue or not.”

He projects a lot of people will be unhappy if they discontinue, “But we’re getting to the age now where it’s a question of how long we can continue,” Alspaugh said.

Alspaugh, a retired statistics professor who taught roughly four decades at the University of Missouri after receiving his doctorate from MU, mentioned the tree farm started as a hobby while he was teaching.

The farm encompasses 200 acres of farmland. He said he bought the farm in segments over the years starting in the 1970s and 1980s. The roughly seven-acre tree farm was originally used for soybean until erosion forced a change.

“We planted the first trees about 1985, and it takes about 7 years to grow a tree,” Alspaugh said. “The trees we are selling are 7-10 years old. The first two or three years, they grow very slow, then after they get about three feet tall, they grow about one foot per year.

“We probably have about three to four hundred trees and we have all the customers we can take care of,” he said. “What really happens is we plant and they choose. Now not all trees will make a good Christmas tree. There’s a lot of scrap trees we just have to cut and throw away. They don’t shape up and they don’t look good so there are a lot of waste trees in the process.”

Alspaugh said he sees a wide variety of customers.

“I would say at least half the customers are repeats, and we’ll have a lot of people come every year for the last ten years,” he observed. “Columbia has a such a big turnover of people and so with the transition of people coming and leaving Columbia, we have a lot of new customers, but we have a lot of repeat customers, too.”

Jessica Scott, a wife and mother of two, said this was the first year going to the tree farm. Her husband, Don, proposed the idea and they went with their two kids, River and Rayelle.

“We drive by it every once in a while,” she said. “We live on east side of town so it’s a shortcut home.”

She described the experience of picking out a tree as a fun one.

“We marched around, the kids ran away from us and hid in the trees. As long as we could hear them, we kept looking for a tree and cut one down,” Scott said.

“Most of the things we do for Christmas we for the kids, like picking out a Christmas tree.”

Sarah and Eli Conrad, 10 and 9 respectively, are siblings who are repeat customers with their family.

They both said decorating the freshly cut tree with ornaments is a blast. However, there’s something even more important.

“Spending time with family,” they both said simultaneously as the best part of the holiday season.

Alspaugh said there are mixed feelings in how this farm has grown.

“We never expected anything like this when we started,” he noted. “I thought I’d grow a few trees and that’d be it.”

He said with his age and the amount of customers, it is tough to keep up. But for now, with the degree of customers and no one else in town running a similar operation, Alspaugh said it is a tough decision to drop everything, retire and go out of business.

He added it may be something to do with the culture that people come back year after year.

“I think the idea of coming out here and cutting a tree and bringing the kids and the grandkids is the experience of something unique and different.”

Alspaugh told a story of buying the farm from the previous owner, and how owning the land is one thing, but you cannot get uptight about the people around the area. He said people walk dogs and kids play in the creek and look for arrowheads and mushrooms in the fields.

“He told me, ‘There are all kinds of people out here so you just have to accept it,’” he said.

Keeping the farm running as long as he has, Alspaugh might be doing more than just accepting everyone on his farm. He said seeing all the people might be the fuel behind keeping the tree farm in business.

“This is the best time of year because all the families come out and they bring their kids and even the dog, and they take pictures and have a wonderful time,” Bruce Alspaugh said. “They can go out and actually cut their own live tree, so when you cut them here, you know where they came from and you know they’re fresh.”

Trees range from about three feet to as large as 10 feet tall.

The farm is located on 4150 Mexico Gravel Road just off Highway 63 and north of I-70. The farm is open on weekends from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on weekdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.