Would you like a cup of Christmas Cheer??

Kim Luke writes a column "The Manicured Farmer" for the industry publication "Christmas Trees" The World's Leading Magazine for Christmas Tree Growers.  This is her most recent column.

Being a part of a family’s holiday tradition is no small thing. It is a big thing, and one of the most endearing privileges of owning a Christmas Tree Farm. Those families who come out to the rolling hills of Fort Osage Christmas are taking an afternoon to build memories that will last a lifetime. Families pile out of the car decked out in Santa hats, family dog and the quest to find that perfect symbol of the holidays. The visitors may be creating a new tradition, or fulfilling their time honored yearly custom. Everything that we do on our farm, is to add to that experience. We try very hard to do our part to make their experience rich and memorable. The holidays are about coming home and celebrating around that perfect Christmas tree. Holidays are all about creating that warm and nurturing feeling with a pretty tree, a cozy fire and the smells of holiday recipe favorites.

What is it about the tea? At first it was only a thought, born from an earlier idea of serving a hot drink filled with the scent of the holidays. Over 30 years ago, the “vintage” blend of wholesome ingredients was served when hostesses of yesteryear relied on splashed upon recipe cards instead of roaming through Pinterest to find menus, recipes and ideas. Even then I gritted my teeth if the recipe required too many hoops to jump through before completion. Of course I could never put my finger on the exact recipe again, so concocted one of my own. Years ago I held an open house at holiday time for clients and the holiday tea would be served with great care. One never knows the turnout for a gather like that, so I always ruled on the side of surplus. For that one occasion each year, I made the tea in an oversized batch to serve to the crowd I hoped would partake, and although my annual events were met with success, I always made way too much.

I would add the citrus, cinnamon and secret ingredients for a day or two proceeding the event, filling my home with the heavenly smells associated with all things festive. The longer the brew the better, and my children would sample for me often. When the event was over, I would have tea for two weeks! But that is where my story lies. The weeks leading up to Christmas always had a large container of my leftover tea, and without trying, a family tradition was born. This was years before we knew that we would be owners of a Christmas tree farm. The benefactors of the spicy splendor became my family, and I made the tea for about a decade or more.

     When we moved to the country, I no longer held the event, so the tea was not part of our holiday. We had much to learn in owning and operating a choose and harvest tree farm, and many of our long standing traditions changed. On crisp and cold winter days, our Christmas tree shopping customers devoured hot cocoa and we could barely keep enough cups on hand. I had pondered the idea of serving the holiday tea, but ideas take planning, action and execution . . . something I didn’t feel I could do during our busy season. It kept nagging at me, knowing how the fit would be perfect like a hand in a glove. My family brought it up often too, how they missed it and how it would be perfect to serve in our gift shop. So one year we did it. I found my recipe and we offered a choice between a complimentary cup of hot cocoa or spiced tea. Doesn’t that sound lovely? Wait….hold on, not so fast!

     In order to supersize my tea servings  I had to recalculate the recipe. This presented a host of issues when it came to cinnamon sticks and other secret ingredients. The next challenge was how to serve it. The sweet and spicy tea did not serve well dispensed from urns like our hot water for cocoa. Spices settled at the bottom, and stirring often helped, but it was not ideal. Soon our serving area was sticky from drops of spilled tea, and on one very busy afternoon, I nearly walked out of my shoes as they  stuck to the floor. The holiday hot tea idea was fast becoming a nightmare, one that I wish would go away.

    Our customers really enjoyed having a choice of two hot drinks. The tea quickly built an enthusiastic following and they came to expect it. I had so many requests to buy the tea, that along with needing an answer to the serving challenges I knew more work had to be done. I would have to convert the wet tea recipe to a dry mix. This would give me the option to serve a few tablespoons of dry mix and fill with water. Did I mention we will only have running water for the first time in the 2017 season, so urns filled with sticky, gooey spice sediment would be a thing of the past. A dry mix could also be packaged for sale.

     Like a mad scientist, I would have to weigh, measure, add, divide, multiply, convert and experiment. I had to have the exact mix of all the spices in each cup. Anything less would be a disapointment to those who already loved my secret recipe. My husband would come into the kitchen and barely be able to see me through the cloud of tea dust I was experimenting with.

     Finally, I felt the recipe was perfect. I make about ten 3lb cannisters of the dry mix to serve by adding hot water in our gift shop. The first year, I packaged up units myself for individual sale, but now we have a family production line for the making of individual units for sale. Our son came up with the name “Christmas Cheer.” When patrons come through the door we greet them with these words, “Would you care for some complimentary hot cocoa or a cup of “Christmas Cheer”? The tea has become a favorite of our tree farm, and patrons tell us they look forward to it all year. Many families buy several boxes and enjoy it throughout the season. Our family staff sips it all day, and our hard working tree handlers appreciate a few hot cups to take off the edge of winter.

      Everyone loves coming home. Throughout life “home” is found in our hearts instead of across the thresholds of our front doors. Our heart can store home life from the past, in the present and even our future. It stores the sights and smells, the memories and the joy. It is the traditions we preserve that allow us to experience “home” again and again. Traditions are the oxygen that provide life to our memories, never discount their importance. The tea was that tradition for our family, and now it has become the same for other families. 


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It's a Dog's Life

Kim Luke writes a column "The Manicured Farmer" for the industry publication "Christmas Trees" The World's Leading Magazine for Christmas Tree Growers.  This is her most recent column.

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     Creatures are everywhere at Fort Osage Farm. More than once the storyteller in me fantasizes about plot lines starring these wonderful little characters in the magical place we live. Every day we see turkey, raccoon, turtles, hawks, fox, coyote, deer, and the smaller varieties: frogs, snakes, squirrels, moles, possum and mice and rabbits. They would make a marvelous cast of characters, as long as they STAY OUTSIDE! Our strapping Alaskan Malamute "Karibou" lives both outside and inside. He is the 120lb star of the farm.

    Karibou mastered his role seamlessly. Thankfully visitors to our farm love being greeted by the brawny snow-white greeter as they slowly open their car doors upon arriving. Christmas tree shopping produces a unique kind of adrenalin among children, the young at heart, and gigantic white Alaskan Malamutes. After being welcomed the hunt begins and Karibou wanders into the field with the jovial groups. In the first couple seasons, Karibou had to be distracted from crouching under the tree as the saw blade moved back and forth! After the tree is harvested, families enjoy cocoa and candy canes near the cherry red wood-burning stove. Karibou knows the sound of cellophane opening means a peppermint treat, and eagerly anticipates candy droppings. Often times he gently swipes the candy from the smaller ones then gulps it down unwrapped! Usually replacing the candy cane immediately quells the crying tot.

     When his high energy routine wears him out, he lies by the bonfire and accepts belly rubs for the rest of the afternoon. He effortlessly tolerates even the little ones who are only learning how to pet an animal. Each season those same kiddos grow older and Karibou grows bigger. Part of an outing to Fort Osage Christmas is seeing Karibou, many having never seen a dog like him. Alaskan Malamutes are a unique breed in Missouri. He is often mistakenly referred to as a Husky. Although both Huskies and Malamutes are northern breeds they are distinctly different. Malamutes have brown eyes, are more broad and strong. Huskies generally have blue eyes, and are smaller and faster. How did we ever end up with the unusual breed as our family pet? Our first Alaskan Malamute puppy made its home with us long before we owned a tree farm.

     Fifteen years ago the saga began with our son Nick's passion to own a dog. Each of our three children are seven and eight years apart, so Nick missed out on our first two dogs, but I didn't. I prayed that owning a tank of fish, and a kitty might suffice, but after five years the desire for a dog still remained. Long before we owned and operated our Christmas Tree Farm, both Bob and I were busy with three children and demanding careers. The thought of adding a dog to the mix of our busy household did not appeal to this mom.

     Our fourteen year old research guru son found the Malamute variety is family/pack oriented, good with children and a dry mouth breed (no drooling). He somehow glossed over the shedding dynamics of the thick-coated northern breeds . . . that was all to be discovered later. I began to think his aptitude for cruising the fairly new internet highway might be a curse, because he found a breeder in Tennessee. Nick was hot on the trail to bring one home. He didn't sign any contracts about his responsibility towards caring for an animal, but his father made a deal he couldn't refuse. At that time my husband was a head high school wrestling coach, and Nick would be a freshman hoping to make his team. If Nick would agree to wrestle in a spring tournament in Saint Louis, they would travel on to Tennessee and pick up the dog! After forty-eight hours our wrestlers returned home with not one but TWO Alaskan Malamute puppies! (this is another story to be told, but surprisingly hubby and I are still hitched)

     Within a short time, we moved to Fort Osage Farm and our two beautiful Alaskan Malamute dogs became distinct mascots for our farm. The friendly male Kodiak greeted all the families. Our female Kianna, spooked by everything, stayed inside. After a nice long life, we lost Kianna at age 13. We planned to get another Malamute puppy with the notion the seasoned Kodiak could teach him the ropes of being our Christmas tree farm mascot. This sounded reasonable, but the new puppy annoyed Kodiak with his playful energy, so our older dog was not onboard with the mentoring.

     Our new star Karibou wins the hearts of every family who visits our farm. His personality is contagious. This puppy arrived oversized and only grew. He made Kodiak look small! As a puppy he even followed a few cars off the property, and had to be returned. Kodiak passed way the next fall and Karibou filled his epic shoes with ease.

     Karibou roams our twenty acres along with Farmer Bob. But when we leave the property he is confined. This wandering giant does not follow rules, and visits every neighbor in a two mile radius! In his clever escapes he's made many special friends. He is always welcomed and seems to lift the spirits of everyone he comes into contact with. He rides high on the Fort Osage Christmas parade float or runs alongside the route greeting everyone.

     Our son Nick carried his passion for dogs into his adult life. He and his wife Amy own four dogs and construct the best American-made dog collars in the country (Slik Hound) Their collars are now in 70 stores across the United States! The recent World Series run of our beloved Kansas City Royals prompted a Slik Hound blue campaign and guess who starred in videos and photo shoots? KARIBOU! A perfect ambassador for not only our Christmas Tree Farm, but Slik Hound too.

     Spring of 2017 our four and a half year old Karibou was hit by a car and killed instantly. It was a sad time at the Luke house. He is sorely missed. The families, especially the children who come to our farm always lingered for his kisses, and posed with him for a picture. The extensive comments left below our farm Facebook tribute post are a testimony to the impact of animals. I began journaling about his antics through the years, and have written a children's chapter book about a little mouse named Ollie who wants to be a king, Karibou his best friend and a cast of characters here at the farm. The name of the series is the Enchanted Farm at Fort Osage and the title of the first book is: The King of Nobody finds His Castle. The first in the series was published in Aug. 2017, and books 2&3 were published in Oct. 2017. 

     I hope my stories will help fill the empty place in the hearts of all the kids who will be looking for Karibou this holiday season. But his bigger than life personality and sweet spirit will live on between the covers of my books. Writing about him helps ease the pain of loss. I don't miss the white dog hair all over, but I sure miss him. He roamed free on a Christmas tree farm and was adored by all, headlined campaigns for Slik Hound, starred in many parades and outings, a stellar ambassador for our farm . . . sounds like a pretty charmed life, but in truth we were the lucky ones.  

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Karibou is the star of children's chapter book series "The Enchanted Farm at Fort Osage". A heartwarming story of a big dog and a little mouse,  unlikely friends who team up to make dreams come true. Books available on Amazon, or at Barnes & Noble Independence location. Illustrations: Rembrandt's Sister. Visit kimlukeauthor.com to view trailers for the books, adult book series and audio books. 

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What do you do when you have a setback? At Fort Osage Farm we keep moving forward and find  new ways to reach our goal. As loyal patrons of our farm you know we suffered a devastating loss to our Scotch Pine tree crop a few seasons back. We estimate we lost 8,000 trees that had finally reached their harvest height 6,7,8'. In case you didn't know, a Christmas tree farmer waits 7 or 8 seasons for a seedling to make it to maturity and be sold. If the seedling can survive . . . too much moisture, not enough moisture, and avoid a host of pests that want to devour it! "Brown Spot" devastated our crop and other kinds of trees across the country. It is a fungal disease that can develop from extremely wet soil and kill the roots. If not treated the whole tree can be consumed and the fungus spores can go airborne and kill a host of trees and plants around it. We had finally produced a crop and with enough trees to meet the demand for fresh cutting at Christmas time. It was devastating for Farmer Bob to remove and burn 8000 trees. He hired help and came in at the end of each day soot covered and smelling of smoke for weeks. 

That was our first SERIOUS discussion about diversifying. And we got busy doing just that. In the fall of 2016 we broke ground on White Pine Lodge. A facility large enough to offer wedding receptions. We are creating something very special. As of this writing the inside of the building is 95% complete. As we wait on warmer weather we will be landscaping, painting and improving our grounds. We plan to offer an option for ceremonies within the giant white pines! The lodge is elegant and natural, earth tone colors, with elements of wood and stone. The building will easily accommodate 150 seated, and when the deck is added we can easily raise those numbers well over 200. We have spent most of last year, educating ourselves, researching, obtaining zoning and creating White Pine Lodge. At this time we are not planning to host weddings in Nov/Dec./Jan. This time will be reserved for our Christmas Tree families. We are giving tours to future brides, and have enjoyed meeting many young couples. A young couple may share the most important day of their lives on our farm, and year after year return to the place it all began as they shop for the family tree or a fresh wreath. Imagine how special that would be to sip our Christmas Cheer tea or hot cocoa around the fire and reminisce each year the happy occasion. 

At about the same time we broke ground on White Pine Lodge we decided to plant a cash crop with a seasonal harvest each fall. If you know me (Farmer Bob's wife) I was pushing for grape vines. I enjoy wine! But we wanted something EASIER than growing Christmas trees- not so labor intensive as tree growing. We decided on Elderberries. 

We researched the fruit and worked with River Hills Harvest (largest Elderberry farm in the nation) University of Missouri Extension agroforestry and horticulture, the Natural Resource Conservation Services and the Missouri Department of Agriculture. The demand for the fruit is high. Elderberries historically are known for their health benefits, and the demand for the fruit must rely on imported fruit from other countries. More elderberry farmers are needed! Harvest Hill Farm will purchase all the berries we can grow. 

So, we are learning how to be Elderberry farmers. We began with 200 plants (think BIG!) The first year was an incredible growth (some 5' tall) We learned the first season fruit is not harvested. We will have our first harvest in fall of 2018. Our Elderberry plants are hybrids and produce a clump of fruit like grapes. The first year we propagated our plants and now have 1000 plants. We are in the middle of propagating right now and will have over 3000 plants. Farmer Bob goes out to the rows of stick looking plants and cuts them down. He brings the hardwood cuttings in and snips away at them until he has 6" sections with buds that are inserted back into the soil with a set of buds above the ground. The bottom buds will make roots and the top buds will make leaves. These sections are sanitized and are dipped in dormant oil for planting when the ground is not frozen. He will plant them in the next three weeks. We are planning to sell single plants in 4" pots in the future. Then you can grow your own immunity booster! I challenge you to read about what Hippocrates referred to as  "nature's medicine chest" and Dr. Oz sings its praises too. 

Our fruit will be sold to River Hills Harvest Farm where they will make it into 100% pure, premium Elderberry Juice, syrups, jams etc. We may also work with wineries who also want to purchase fruit for their Elderberry wine production. 

With our first real harvest coming in the fall I will have plenty to write about! We have been educated in the steps of the actual harvest, and have watched the videos supplied by Harvest Hills. Of course everything sounds good in theory! I will keep you posted on what that experience is like! 

In the meantime we anticipate a busy spring as we learn many new things. Each day we are grateful for the passion we feel about our farms future. We love this place and we are blessed to have so many kind people like you who follow our journey. 

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Hardwood Cuttings

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A dip in dormant oil

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Bagged and ready to refrigerate and wait until planting.