In 1980, Loren Kruse took the reins of the Grundy County, Iowa, farm his parents had called home for 50 years. He was also an up-and-coming agricultural editor, just four years into his decorated career at Successful Farming magazine.
That same year, Kruse learned something that would soon send him down a new path—one certainly distinctive to north-central Iowa. Grundy County, Iowa, had no Christmas tree farms.
So, he began doing his homework. He planned and picked up ideas and advice from established Christmas tree growers. Then, Kruse took the leap and established his first stand of trees in 1981. It brought a new kind of crop diversity to north-central Iowa. There weren’t—and still aren’t today—many breaks in the region’s sea of corn and soybeans. But he had a good feeling.
“I wanted to participate in a way that was greater than just producing corn and soybeans in a crop-share arrangement,” said Kruse, the longtime Editor-in-Chief of Successful Farming who retired in 2012. “I didn’t know anything about Christmas trees when I chose them. I just knew there wasn’t another Christmas tree farm in Grundy County. From what I could tell at the time, the potential was pretty good.”
Catering to farm families
He was right. Now almost 40 years later, Kruse and his family provide Christmas trees, wreaths and other natural holiday decor to customers who drive three hours or more to take part in what’s become an annual tradition. It’s a tradition for Kruse’s own family, too; wife Liz, son John, daughter Kate and her husband Drew Warnock all help out at the farm.
Though it’s a working farm, Kruse enjoys the “less hurried” life of raising trees and helping create memories for his customers.
“Many of our customers are farm families. They all come here happy. And we want to send them home even happier,” Kruse said. “I work hard to make sure they have a very personal experience. For a lot of families, it’s become a holiday tradition. So, we work hard to do everything we can to see that they have the best possible experience at our farm.”
While Kruse Christmas Farm is similar to scores of other farms like it around the country, it’s also unique. In his leadership role at Successful Farming for almost four decades, Kruse is a recognized name for thousands of farmers and readers. Because of that role, he often finds himself wrapped up in a conversation with a visiting customer, not about Christmas trees, but the latest corn futures prices or area farmland values.
It’s a unique combination that has enabled Kruse—a natural listener who’s fond of any engaging conversation about agriculture and rural life—to provide a true one-of-a-kind experience to his customers. That’s something he said is massively important to an operation like his that’s not just selling a product but an experience.
“Young families are my best customers, and we get a lot of new families every year. They’re looking for a great family experience, and they have chosen to pick out their tree at our farm. We make sure they’re attended to as families,” Kruse said. “I really enjoy asking farmers what’s on their minds, I learn a lot from them and they get to tell the old Editor-in-Chief of Successful Farming what they think. It’s a great farm family experience.”
The right enterprise for his farm
Kruse Christmas Farm is an example of the kind of agricultural diversification that can open a lot of new revenue doors for farmers. Operating a Christmas tree farm surrounded by corn and soybeans wasn’t part of Kruse’s plan earlier in his career. Looking back, it’s the kind of farm evolution he wrote and spoke about frequently during his long career as a leader of the agricultural media.
“All of us are good at more things than we know or have an interest in. It’s why I have always encouraged farmers to, every year, research a possible new enterprise they might be able to add to their farm,” Kruse said. “Most of them won’t work out, but going through that process as a business person will help you see that there are always opportunities to add something new to your operation. You just have to do your homework.
“Some might sell beef directly to consumers. Some might raise and sell organic crops. I chose Christmas trees.”
And though it’s been a lot of hard manual work filled with learning experiences over the years, Kruse doesn’t have a single regret. He knows he made the right choice.
“I think 80 percent of the good ideas I’ve had, I learned from other Christmas tree growers. And 80 percent of the ones that turned out badly, I came up with myself,” Kruse joked. “But it’s what I call ‘satisfaction income.’ You can’t put a price on that.”