Archive for Thursday, November 29, 2001

A growing business

November 29, 2001

Jack Russell's business requires a lot of patience. The labor pays off this time of year when customers visit his 80-acre spread, pining for his product.

The 79-year-old Russell owns Cedar Valley Forest on 83rd Street. Russell has dedicated his time and land to growing Christmas trees since he planted his first trees in 1962. Eight years later, Russell began selling his trees.

Russell said he purchased the farm in 1956 and contacted then-Johnson County Agriculture Agent Tom Hall on land-use possibilities.

"I had never been a farmer," Russell said. "(Hall) said, 'Why don't you try Christmas trees?' I've been doing it ever since."

He developed the tree-growing business on the side while owning and operating Russell Steel Products, a metal fabricating business in Kansas City, Kan. He said his biggest selling year was in 1975 when he sold 1,700 trees. Russell said he sold Russell Steel Products in 1978, trading working with steel for working with wood.

"It's too much work for a hobby," he said.

Russell managed Cedar Valley Forest with his wife, Ginny, until she passed away in 1988. Since then, he has employed the help of his son, John, and high school students looking for seasonal work. Maintaining the farm has its share of off-season work, also. Russell said mowing is a continual process in the summer, along with shaping the trees with hand sheers. He also develops his own seeds and grows the young seedlings in his greenhouse until the trees are ready to plant.

"The farm became noted for its good white pine," he said. "Really, because it takes a special dirt to grow."

Cedar Valley Forest also produces Black Hill spruce and Scotch pine. Russell said he took some years off from the business to pursue other interests and try other trees, such as the Fraser fir. However, the Fraser Fir didn't take root well on his land. Now, he's a self-proclaimed "guinea pig," working with the Canaan fir tree.

Russell said sales have declined in recent years, which he attributes to his time off for tree experimentation and his pursuit of other tree-related projects.

"As a matter of fact, I planted 1,500 deciduous trees just because I like the tree aspect," he said.

Working with Christmas trees sparked an idea for a Christmas tree stand, which helps to keep the tree upright while feeding it water to keep it fresh for the holiday season. Russell said he sold as many as 5,000 stands a year, but he sold the business to a fellow grower when he no longer wanted to tend to the business.

"I believe that thing brought me tree customers" he laughed. "I intended it to be the other way around."

Russell said he has his hands full with the tree growing business, selling on average 400 trees each year. His ideal number of tree sales is 750 per year, he said. His main focus is to produce quality trees at affordable prices ranging from $25 to $60.

But, the things he enjoys most, more than seeing them grow and more than selling his trees, is having a helping hand in getting the trees started from the ground up.

"I enjoy that more than anything else starting them from seed."

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