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A Christmas Experience Like Never Before

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A Christmas Experience Like Never Before

Harold Hill looking out at his trees in the spring

Harold Hill looking out at his trees in the spring

Photo by Kristen Baier

Harold Hill looking out at his trees in the spring

Photo by Kristen Baier

Photo by Kristen Baier

Harold Hill looking out at his trees in the spring

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Before this year when the word “Christmas tree” came to mind, I thought of curling up in a blanket with a cup of tea, and reading a book or watching Christmas movies in the light of the tree.  I thought of the fond memories there are behind each Christmas ornament that we hang on the tree as a family, and how it marks the years of our family traditions.  But, because of this year, I now have a whole new meaning for a Christmas tree.

Last spring, I was asked to help a Christmas tree farmer plant trees, and even though I knew nothing about it, I chose to sign up for the job anyway.  So, on a pretty nice Saturday, I headed north to Minburn to help Harold Hill and his evergreen farm.  Personally, my family has never had a real tree, so this idea was brand new to me.  As I helped plant the baby trees so they would start growing, I looked around me and saw trees that would be perfect for holiday spirit.  But when I started asking Harold questions about how long it took to grow them and he started telling me about the year to year maintenance it took to keep these trees looking pristine, I quickly found out that if you were to look underneath the branches, and find a way to count the rings around the trunk–you would see nothing but the hard work that goes into each individual tree.

After planting in the morning, Carol Hill invited us inside for her homemade chili, cookies and fruit.  As we sat and talked, I found out more and more remarkable things about the Hill family, like how Carol was a teacher, that they have hosted countless international guests, and they foster dogs.  Harold and Carol took turns sharing different reactions the international groups had to the kind of agriculture we have in Iowa, and how their lives have been impacted by each unique experience.  After finishing lunch, we then completed the task of planting the rest of the baby trees, and as we were coming back inside, Harold grabbed his checkbook to pay us.  However, I wish that he hadn’t paid me–I had such a great time listening to how much the Hill family has done for the community around them, and I was very appreciative they taught me a new skill.  And so I offered that if he needed help around the holiday season when they start selling the trees, I would love to help him out.  Sure enough, a month before sales began Harold asked me if I would still be able to help–and my answer was a definite yes.

The selling season started the day after Thanksgiving, and the rest of the weekend I went and helped sell trees. Again, I have never had the “real Christmas tree experience” so I had no idea what I was going to do.  To start, I learned to ask the customer if they wanted any branches off the bottom of the tree cut off. Then I would ask “What kind of tree stand do you have? Does it have a prong up the middle or does it hold the tree in place from the sides?” If they said it has a prong, I would have to drill a hole in the bottom of the trunk.  After I cut the branches, I would then carry the tree over to be shaken free of the dead or extra pine needles that fell.  Then I would wrap the tree in netting because it was much easier to move–especially since all of these trees were going into a house. Finally, I would give the tree back to them after they went inside the tree shed to pay.

Almost all of the families that came to pick out trees were happy and excited to have a brand new decoration to create Christmas spirit in their house, so it made my job really easy when I interacted with the each family.  Some of the best parts of working, however, were watching kids react to what the tree shaker. Some laughed really loud, some “ooed” and “awwed,” and I could tell almost all of them wanted to either be shaken, or see what it felt like to hold the tree that was being shaken. There were so many families that went through, I quickly lost count. I was amazed at all of the new faces I was seeing, I expected many of the families to be from Adel, DeSoto, or Minburn– however people came from all over to get their trees specifically from this tree farm.

And because of that, there was one thing that I found in common between all customers, no matter how big, small, tall, wide, or what species of tree– every customer wanted the experience that the Hill’s Tree Farm offered above every other place that one could find a real tree.  Harold and Carol have created something worth wild there at their farmstead, and it doesn’t have to do with the quality of trees.  Because of their emphasis on a family-friendly atmosphere is what draws customers back year after year.  Harold made sure that each customer that came was greeted by someone working. If they didn’t know what they were looking for, Harold or his daughter will personally talk with each family about the different species of trees they offer and direct them to where they are located.

Once they select a tree and bring it to us so we can process it, customers are welcomed into the tree shed where Carol handcrafts Christmas wreaths for decorations and offers homemade cookies to accompany ingredients to make hot cocoa for everyone.  Also, right outside the tree shed there is a warm fire with marshmallows and roasting sticks for those who need to warm up.  I smiled every time I saw someone walking to grab their tree with hot cocoa in hand no matter the age of the person. There’s something about hot cocoa that is universal between all ages, and it brings joy to everyone, and Harold and Carol get it. They understand that it is important to give people an experience filled with fun memories that they can look forward to each year.  They create an atmosphere that is contagiously filled with fun and excitement for the holiday season.

Nowadays, that’s what everyone craves. Without knowing it, the whole new world we opened when technology became mobile created a habitat for loneliness.  Now, instead of personally talking face-to-face to tell a friend that you’ll be late for the concert, we do it in a few clicks of a keyboard.  Instead of showing someone that you missed them by surprising them for a weekend visit, it’s easier to just slide up on their Snapchat story and say, “aww…that looks like so much fun, I miss you lots!”  These meaningful face-to-face interactions that were the only way to communicate so long ago have now become so impersonal. But the few people (like Harold and Carol) still value the face-to-face interactions that spark memories and feelings.  They know it’s not about the money they make from each Christmas tree, or selling more trees than the year before–they know it’s about the family memories they are helping create for each individual that ends up at Hill’s Tree Farm.  It’s about capturing the feeling of nostalgia, that some things never change–like the smell of a real Christmas tree in the house, and the responsibility it is to keep it alive, or that you’re always guaranteed a homemade cookie and hot chocolate from Carol inside.  Harold and Carol unknowingly have figured out something that big corporations haven’t; that making something easier for the consumer to obtain isn’t always better.  If this tree farm had started doing online orders and shipping the trees to people, or if they had created an order online and pick up at farm, there wouldn’t be an experience, there wouldn’t be fond memories that children and parents could hold onto and recollect years later–it would simply make it ordering or getting a Christmas tree.

Harold and Carol have stood strong against the push that more is better by ensuring their company runs the same, and providing the guarantee that there will always be an experience.  So here I am announcing my news-breaking marketing proposal: we start having more local and small businesses again. We allow for personal relationships and friendships to be made.  We allow for experiences instead of simply shopping and checking it off the to-do list, and we allow memories to be made.  We stop supporting the ease of ordering online, and we go to local stores to get what we need.  We let people help people by serving each other with each of our gifts and passions.  We stop worrying about bigger and better, and we live present in the community, and with the people we are surrounded by.

Photo by Kristen Baier
Christmas trees in the spring

Photo by Kristen Baier
Shaking a Christmas tree

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